YEREVAN (Reuters) - Iranians facing a shortage of COVID-19 vaccines at home are travelling to neighbouring Armenia as tourists in growing numbers to get inoculated there for free, according to data from Armenia's tourism board.
Armenia has approved three vaccines against COVID-19 - Russia's Sputnik V, China's CoronaVac and AstraZeneca's vaccine and initially offered all of them free to foreign visitors.
The Armenian Tourism Committee said more than 8,500 Iranian citizens had visited in June, up from 5,000 a month earlier.
"We didn't have any special plans to develop vaccine tourism, it happened accidentally," said Alfred Kocharyan, deputy head of the Armenian Tourism Committee, adding that people were also coming from India to get free shots.
"But demand for vaccines has created an opportunity for our travel agencies which I encourage them to take."
Armenian TV reported long queues of Iranians at mobile vaccination units in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, last week with some Iranian tourists saying they had spent several nights in the street waiting for their turn to get vaccinated.
"There were too many people there, there were too many Iranians, and we still don't know if we can get a vaccine or not," said Shirin Darvish, an Iranian tourist who had been waiting to get a shot for ten days.
The buildup of overnight queues prompted the authorities to tighten vaccine rules.
As of July 15, foreigners can only be inoculated in Armenia with the AstraZeneca vaccine and must spend 10 days in the country before becoming eligible.
Armenia had administered at least 260,813 doses of COVID vaccines by July 10, according to the Armenian authorities.
Iran, with a population of 83 million, had recorded 87,161 deaths from coronavirus as of July 19, the highest toll in the Middle East.
According to The Islamic Republic News Agency, around 2.7% of Iran's population have received both doses of an anti-coronavirus vaccine.
(Reporting by Artem Mikryukov; writing by Maria Vasilyeva; editing by Andrew Osborn and Philippa Fletcher)