Iran ecotourism untapped

Financial Tribune- Iran’s share of the global ecotourism market does not reflect the country’s potential in the sector, an official at the Department of Environment said.

Speaking at an event in Tehran on Monday to commemorate the International Day for Biological Diversity, Hamid Gashtasb, director of DOE’s Biomes and Regional Affairs Office, said the Middle East’s share of global ecotourism is 5.2%.

“And Iran’s stake is less than 1% of the region’s ecotourism, which means we’re missing out on a fantastic opportunity,” he was quoted as saying by IRNA.

Gashtasb said about 2.2% of Iran’s five million tourists can be classified as ecotourists, adding that the country should devise feasible plans to not only increase its share, but also generate employment.

The DOE has long objected to allowing tourists in protected areas, arguing that the swarm of tourists will irreparably damage vulnerable ecosystems.

A recent example of that is the damage inflicted on Badab-e-Soort, a natural spring comprising stepped travertine terrace formations created over thousands of years in Mazandaran Province.

Uncontrolled tourism led to the flattening of the stepped terraces, forcing tourism officials to close the site in 2015. It was eventually reopened in April 2016, before the site was fully restored.

Nevertheless, Gashtasb said the department is in favor of responsible tourism in protected regions.

“We have 280 protected areas in Iran, about 150 of which have comprehensive management strategies that include tourism. We’re reviewing requests to open these sites to tourists,” he said.

Ecotourism has been one of the main focuses of President Hassan Rouhani’s administration. Since 2013, when Rouhani’s first term in office started, the number of natural tourist sites in Iran has grown from only 23 to over 320 at present.

In 2015, Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization streamlined and updated ecotourism regulations to facilitate activities in the sector.

Last year, the Department of Environment approved regulations pertaining to ecotourism investment, amid concerns that tours of natural sites could take a toll on the environment.

In 2016, the government announced a joint deal with Omid Entrepreneurship Fund to allocate 145 billion rials ($3.6 million) in the form of loans to ecolodge owners to help expand their operations.

The government plans to increase the number of ecolodges across Iran to 2,000 by the end of the sixth five-year economic development plan (2017-22).