At the foot of Persepolis, busloads of foreign tourists gaze in awe at the ancient mud-brick ceremonial capital Iran hopes will be part of the rebirth of its tourism industry. Although decades of sanctions mean that the country’s hotels and infrastructure are not five-star quality, a tentative political thaw with the West is drawing visitors to Iranian attractions steeped in myth and legend.
Persepolis — a jewel of the first Persian empire whose palace and terraces took more than 100 years to build, starting under Darius the Great in 518 BC — is one of the highlights.
“Before coming to Iran I knew the vision of this country from the outside was very dark,” said Piotr Chwalba, from Poland, finally looking at Persepolis after thinking of visiting for years.
“A place like Iran has two sides: the one created by the media and the other version, the truth, where everyone helps you when you travel and everyone smiles at you. It’s great,” Chwalba said.
Sincere as such testimony is, a rise in visitors has more to do with politics than praise.
The prospects for tour operators were bleak until recently. The election last year of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his decision to restart negotiations with the US and other leading nations about Iran’s nuclear program has been a catalyst for the tourism industry.
While seeking to play host to international visitors, it also helps that his speeches do not tend to excoriate the West in the same manner as those of his predecessor, former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“Mr Rouhani’s demeanor, his smile, his positive interaction with the world has created a new sense of ease,” said Ibrahim Pourfaraj, president of Iran’s tour operators association.
Thomas, an engineer from Germany, said the nuclear issue is the only thing he hears about Iran in the news back home.
“What we see is totally different than what we hear from the outside,” the 29-year-old said. “The Iranians are very hospitable and very curious.”
Shiite pilgrims from Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon and Pakistan currently make up 60 percent of Iran’s visitors, but Tehrain’s main push is to recapture the spending power of Europe, Asia and the US.
For Iran — whose currency, the rial, has been severely depressed by rampant inflation — tourism offers a foreign exchange windfall.
The cities of Isfahan, Shiraz and Yazd — all steeped in culture — are considered the country’s top attractions, but sites such as Kish Island with its beaches on the Gulf are also being promoted for a more relaxed holiday.
And the tourists are coming back: Official figures show that at the end of March, tourist numbers were up 35 percent year-on-year to 4.5 million, bringing in US$6 billion over the period. Iran, with 17 UNESCO-listed World Heritage sites, wants 20 million visitors within a decade.
However, a nuclear deal remains a hope not a given and tour operators know optimism can vanish quickly, so for now, local guides are filling their pockets.
“This is a new wave. We have between 300 percent and 400 percent more visitors,” said Mohsen Hajisaeid, who was looking after a group from Hong Kong. “For some languages we don’t even have a guide to help them.”
Iran’s shortfalls are not confined to translators. Although many hotels have been built in the sprawling conurbations of Mashhad, Esfahan and Shiraz — the closest city to Persepolis — they are primarily for the domestic market. In the tourism sector, there is a specific need for customer-focused training and more development.
“Our capabilities are limited compared to the influx of tourists,” Iranian Vice President Massoud Soltani-Far, whose brief includes tourism, said at an industry conference recently.
More than 900 projects are being undertaken at a cost of US$200 million, but there are still significant gaps in the market.
“Transport and four-star or five-star hotels are not there to meet the demand,” Soltani-Far said, perhaps alluding to well-publicized problems with the fitting-out of Iranian planes caused by the sanctions.
Yet there are bright spots at the top of the market.
Luxury train the Jewels of Persia arrived in Tehran on Oct. 27 on an all-inclusive 15-day trip, with tickets ranging from US$9,000 to US$14,000.
However, such trips may start to breed unease. Some conservative members of parliament are demanding that tourists be given guidance on how to behave upon arriving in the Islamic Republic.
It is a sensitive issue visitors must embrace — the dress code for women is loose clothing, known as hijab, that covers the head and neck, while men should avoid shorts.
A recent spate of acid attacks on Iranian women in Isfahan, reportedly because they were not properly veiled, has highlighted the requirements, despite authorities having denied such a link.
To those that do travel to Iran though, the warm welcome is outweighing concerns about dress, security or the need for high-class hotels and slick service.
“The country is safe, maybe more so than some European countries,” Thomas said.
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