The Siosepol bridge, whose name means bridge of 33 arches, in Isfahan, is one of Iran’s top tourist destinations. Photograph: Alamy
Iran is hoping that the nuclear agreement struck in Vienna will create a further boost to a tourist industry that has already relaxed visa requirements and is planning to build new hotels to attract visitors to its ancient sights
Iran, host to many unique cultural treasures largely unseen by western eyes, is expecting a significant rise in the number of tourists visiting the country in the wake of this historic nuclear deal.
President Hassan Rouhani’s government is taking fresh measures to ease or abolish visa requirements for most foreign visitors and build as many as 200 new hotels, as existing accommodation is insufficient to cater for the spike in tourism that has occurred since his election in 2013.
Iran’s vice-president for tourism, Masoud Soltanifar, said that “bright days” lie ahead for the country’s tourism industry following the nuclear agreement struck in Vienna.
“No other industry in Iran will see a bigger boost than tourism as the result of this deal,” he said. “The news about the nuclear agreement and lifting of economic sanctions has delighted our tourism industry.” Soltanifar announced earlier in July that Iran was increasing the length of tourist visas from 15 days to one month, and from as early as next year tourist visas could be issued electronically.
Earlier this month, Unesco added two more ancient sites – Susa archaeological mounds and the stunning Meymand village – the 18th and 19th sites on Iran’s world heritage list. The country was a popular destination for visitors until the 1979 Islamic revolution, and hosted world luminaries such as Andy Warhol, violinist Yehudi Menuhin and choreographer Maurice Béjart.
Iran, which was a Zoroastrian country before Islam arrived, is home to some of the world’s most magnificent historical and archaeological sites with ancient ruins, glittering mosques and spectacular landscapes. Relics of a proud ancient civilisation include: Persepolis, the capital of the largest empire that the world has ever seen; the city of Isfahan; Shiraz, the city of love and poetry; and Hamadan, where Avicenna, the father of early modern medicine, is buried. The capital Tehran is famous for having ski resorts on its doorstep.
Michael Pullman, marketing manager of UK-based tour operator Wild Frontiers, which has been taking western tourists to Iran for the past 10 years, said demands for Iran tours have soared since the nuclear deal was reached earlier this week. He also said that since 2013 demand to visit Iran has increased significantly, and last year the tour operator, which specialises in small, tailor-made group tours, took 150 people. He expects that number to increase by 30% this year.
“When relations started to thaw between Iran and the west, suddenly people felt safe to go,” said Pullman. “It had been branded as part of the ‘axis of evil’ by George Bush, which didn’t help things, and it’s taken time for Iran to rid itself of the label.”
The reactions from westerners visiting Iran is remarkable, he added: “They all come back unanimously saying it’s their ‘new’ country. The sites are one thing – there’s just stunning Islamic architecture and ancient sites, such as Persopolis – but everyone seems to agree that it’s the people that are the biggest surprise.”
David McGuinness from Travel The Unknown, echoed Pullman: “When Rouhani got elected, it made a sea-change difference in terms of bookings. Immediately we saw a rise in bookings for Iran, it suddenly became one of our most popular destinations.” His company, which took 100 people to Iran last year, has already planned several other tours – two classic and archeology tours in September and four more in October, including off-the-beaten-track tours.
But is Iran safe to visit? McGuinness said: “The country is very safe, I have travelled there myself five or six times over the last two years and we have never had any problems with anybody. Iran is probably the most friendly, most welcoming country I’ve ever been in.”
Pullman agreed: “I felt very safe. With what’s going on at the moment with Isis, if you look at the countries surrounding Iran, such as Syria and Iraq, they are unsafe but Iran is quite a strictly-controlled country, it’s 90% Shia and there’s no kind of Sunni-Shia friction. You feel safe walking in the streets, I felt safer there than I do in most places in London.”
One big disappointment is that the British foreign office (FCO) still advises against all but essential travel to Iran. “FCO still advises against travelling to Iran but we feel it’s perfectly safe and that seems to be more of an issue with the fact that there’s no British embassy in Tehran, rather than any particular threat,” said Pullman. Wild Frontiers works with an insurer who provides cover for its clients as standard insurance policies are not valid while FCO advice against travel is in place.
The FCO announced on 15 July that it was planning to reopen its embassy in Tehran by the end of this year. “When that happens and the FCO lifts its advice, the demand will increase further, in fact it will go to the roof,” said Pullman.
Pullman visited Iran last year and noted that: “Iran has an incredibly young population, I think over 60% is under 35; it has a history of being a cultured nation, and very well-educated. It also has one of the highest female university rates anywhere in the world.”
The UAE-based Rotana hotels is planning to open a number of hotels in Iran, and France’s leading hotelier, Accor, is involved in at least two four-star hotels in the country. Iranian officials, looking at neighbouring Turkey with envy, have expressed hope that the country could attract as many as 20 million visitors a year by 2025.
Saeed Kamali Dehghan Iran correspondent, www.theguardian.com