Iran may be the hottest travel ticket of 2016

The moments that defy stereotypes and preconceived notions are both big and small when it comes to a trip to Iran.

New York resident Kaja Olcott, for instance, recalls walking along the streets of a small Iranian town with her family and hearing chanting and singing.

The voices were coming from a tiny room in the basement of a nearby building, and Olcott’s tour guide peeked in to get a closer look.

“I’m not sure what was being celebrated,” says Olcott. “There was a group of maybe 50 people crowded into this small room…and they all came over and started hugging us and encouraging us to come in and clap and sing with them.”

That moment became one of many vivid, impromptu cultural exchanges during her nearly two-week visit to Iran. “I was honestly driven to tears,” she adds. “They didn’t even know who we were and they just welcomed us in. They are so proud of their culture and so excited to share it with people.”

Olcott’s experience is by no means singular among American travelers who have recently visited Iran.

The stories being relayed by one traveler after another depict welcoming, humbling or heartwarming interactions between ordinary Iranians and Americans, despite the fact that the two countries have long had an icy relationship.

The United States’ recent decision to lift economic sanctions against Iran seems to have opened a floodgate of pent up demand among Americans who’d been waiting for the opportunity to travel to the country.

Intrepid U.S. travelers, observing the slightest warming of relations, have wasted no time booking trips to Iran, overwhelming tour companies who say the demand has led to tours filling up immediately and new ones rapidly being added.

Iran, it seems, has suddenly become the next Cuba, a country opening up for American travelers in ways that in years past were largely unthinkable, making it one of 2016’s hottest travel destinations.

“There’s been a significant bump in the number of people inquiring about going in 2016, who are trying to jump on trips with last minute notice,” says Annie Lucas, vice president at Mir Corporation, which offers train journeys through Iran in group tours and private tours. “We’ve had trips fill up and have added departures, offering more opportunities to travel there.”

By The Street