Due to the need of tourists, Iran opened doors to neighboring countries

Iran hopes to take advantage of improving relations with Arab and neighboring countries to revive its tourism, which is struggling to restart after the Covid crisis, due to a lack of Western tourists.

Will Emiratis, Iraqis and Armenians succumb to the allure of the millennial cities of Isfahan, Shiraz and Mashhad, or the grand landscapes of ancient Persia?

To woo them, Iran is trying to diversify its tourism offer in the northwestern border areas and the Gulf Coast.

And it brags about its culture, the hospitality of its residents and the low cost of accommodation, so many advantages are put forward to balance the obligations imposed on travelers by the Islamic Republic, such as restrictions on wearing the veil, not consuming alcohol or nightlife.

“If Iran wants to attract more tourists, it must show its humanity to the world,” said Hamid Shateri, owner of a travel agency in Tehran.

Thus efforts are being made in the northwest, an area off the normal path, closer to Turkey, Iraq, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

A carpet seller in the old market of the central Iranian city of Yazd on July 3, 2023 (AFP – Atta Kenare)

Visitors have the choice between the large city of Tabriz and its famous bazaar, eco-tourism among the Rocks of Aras, recently listed as a UNESCO Geopark, or elegant Armenian churches.

Archbishop Krikor Chiftjian, Archbishop of the Provinces of Azerbaijan East and West, testifies, “Throughout the year, many Armenian tourists come to visit the 9th-century Monastery of St. Stefanos”, which is also listed in UNESCO.

Located in a wooded valley, this monastery, damaged and rebuilt several times, is an important evidence for the Armenians of their cultural influence in the north-west of Iran.

– Geopolitical tensions –

If Armenians do not hesitate to cross the border, this is not the case for Azerbaijanis in the current context of tensions between Tehran and Baku, two neighbors who oppose a range of subjects of discord.

“In the 2010s, many Azerbaijanis came to Tabriz for treatment, which contributed to the development of medical tourism in the region,” explains expert Babak Babali.

A few years back, Iran also attracted a lot of Europeans before their numbers dwindled. “They are afraid to come,” says Hamid Shuteri.

For two years, several Western capitals have been “formally advising” their citizens not to travel to the country, specifically because of the risk of arrest and “arbitrary detention”.

These recommendations remain in force this summer, although Tehran has released seven Europeans in recent months, some of whom have been replaced with Iranians imprisoned in Europe.

About twenty Europeans will remain in detention in Iran, including four Frenchmen.

“Tehran is showing a willingness to de-escalate, but it will take time for Europeans to return in large numbers,” predicts expert Babak Babali.

Tourists visit Star Valley, one of the tourist centers on Qeshm Island in the Gulf off Iran's southern coast on May 1, 2023 (AFP - Atta Kenare)
Tourists visit Star Valley, one of the tourist centers on Qeshm Island in the Gulf off Iran’s southern coast on May 1, 2023 (AFP – Atta Kenare)

Tourists, mainly from countries with good relations with Iran, such as the Chinese and Russians, visit there almost a year after the start of the protest movement triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini on 16 September. “There are also Arabs who come to the holy cities of Mashhad or Qom for Shia ceremonies,” says Mr. Shetteri.

Iran is trying to attract residents from Gulf countries, especially the Emirates, to the islands of Kish and Qeshm, which offer a more comfortable environment with beaches, luxury hotels and shopping centers.

Overall, the country will welcome 4.1 million foreigners in 2022, according to World Tourism Organization figures cited by Iranian media, a figure rising after a decline due to the pandemic, but low as it accounts for only 0.4% of tourist visits worldwide.

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