TEHRAN, Iran – Since Iran’s revolution in 1979, only the most intrepid Western tourists have been travelling there. But that is changing.
Led by an English-speaking guide, a group of tourists from Germany, Switzerland and Australia admire the large, stained-glass windows of the lavish Golestan Palace. The walled complex, with 17 different buildings, museums and enough gold and cut crystal to compete with St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace, is the legacy of the Qajar family, who built it, and ruled from the palace in the late 18th century. It’s one of those, ‘don’t leave Tehran, ‘til you’ve visited…’ locations.
For the first time in decades, Iran is steadily in the travel pages of British newspapers. The Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph, and others have branded it the next, “new” destination for adventure travelers; new, but old. Iran used to be a popular place to vacation. Some 70,000 Americans travelled there in 1977. But, the tourists, and multi-national hotels like the Intercontinental, Sheraton and others, pulled out in 1979, at the start of the revolution.
Iran is finally starting to see a tourism turnaround. Since President Hassan Rouhani took over a year ago, with more liberal views and an interim nuclear agreement, tourism has risen rapidly. Iran’s tourism ministry has cited a 240 percent increase in European visitors, alone. That figure may seem high, but sources from other parts of the tourism industry agree.
Arshan used to work one or two days a week as a tour guide in Tehran. Now, he tells Rudaw, “There’s a completely different change in tourism. I work seven days a week, sometimes double and triple days, with airport transfers. “
The people using those airport transfers are also filling up hotels.
Amir Mousapour manages the front office at the Espinas Hotel, the only privately-owned, post-revolution five-star hotel.
“After Rouhani took office, we don’t advertise. When he came to power, there was a feeling Iran would be open for business to tourists and there has been a big change.”
Mousapour says the Espinas went from a 45-50 percent occupancy rate to 80 percent full. And it’s not just about business picking up; Mousapour explains the kind of tourists coming marks a big change, too.
“Previously guests were only from Asia and not the EU. But now, it’s a lot of EU, US, British and Australian guests, tourists and government ministers.”
The government has pledged to ease strict visa requirements for visitors, and it is encouraging hotel development with attractive loans. The Espinas will open a second Tehran property, with a helipad and an air taxi, next year.
But there are no plans to ease the ban on alcohol, or the dress code for women, the “hijab.” Local and tourist women must be covered in public in long flowing robes or a “manteau” – a light jacket – over their normal clothes.
Tourists may only visit government-approved sites, with mandatory guides for Americans, British and Canadians. The government still has a patchy human rights record, but Cynthia McVey and her husband have wanted to travel to Iran for 10 years. It finally felt like the right time to do so.
“When Rouhani came in, things seemed to ease up a little bit and we thought we’d go for it,” McVey says.
The 57-year old from Wales says the biggest surprise was the visibility of Iranian women.
“Yes, they wear the veil, you are covered up, but women are everywhere; they’re on the streets, they’re in big jobs. There are more women in higher education than men; it definitely seems they’re there and ready to step forward. The trouble is when it comes to the law; they don’t have a lot of rights. They’re walking a knife edge all the time, you feel.”
American Frances Broaddus-Crutchfield first visited Iran three years ago. She returned in October, on the inaugural journey of the Blue Eagle Danube Express, the first Western train to complete the trip. She says things were different this time.
“The younger people have changed, the jeans are getting tighter, the sleeves are pushed up a little more, the manteau is more shapely, some even had belts on and the headscarf is pushed back, even showing a little hair. I did get the chance to talk to a local, who volunteered that he was very happy with his new president and the potential for relationships with other countries. That really surprised me. I would never have asked about it.”
That wasn’t the only change Broaddus-Crutchfield noticed.
“It’s more crowded… there were people milling around everywhere. I’m sure there were more tourists, particularly in train stations and at the airport.”
One of the biggest signs Western tourism is picking up? Welcome the food tourists.
Fatemeh Fereidooni established her travel agency two years ago, and is the first to lead culinary tours. She says much of the demand is from Australians, like one woman who requested a three-day tour of Tehran’s tea shops, bakeries and coffee houses.
Fereidooni explains that Iran has an inherently rich food culture, with eight different kinds of bread in Tehran alone, 10 different kinds of dried plums, a city with 15 different sweets — and the list goes on, she says.
Everyone connected to Iran’s tourism industry shares a collective excitement about its potential, but there’s also an awareness, that the hospitality sector must grow alongside visitor numbers.
David McGuinness owns London-based tour operator Travel the Unknown. He’s seen interest in Iran rise 350-400 percent over the last year, and says the hardest part now is identifying local tour guides who can provide specialist tours.
For example, Tehran’s urban art scene is vibrant. The government pays big name, and lesser-known artists to beautify buildings. All of the artwork is different, from tile mosaics, to abstracts, portraits of members of parliament and simple, bright flower cut-outs. In any Western city, there would be a tour of such a vibrant and active street art scene. Not in Tehran. McGuinness says that’s part of the problem.
“We’d love to expand our offerings to include a gentle walking tour taking in local villages, or a tour of Tehran’s murals, but these things are so new there. We’re working on finding people who can do these tours well.”
And, at the Espinas, Mr. Mousapour, who was educated in Europe, says Tehran needs more infrastructure and education to welcome guests.
“We need accommodation, transfers from the airport, restaurants and education for hospitality in our universities. We need our young people to learn how to present service in hotels. We don’t have enough English speakers.”
He acknowledges that hospitality is a cornerstone of Iranian culture: “but service doesn’t come naturally to us.”
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