Iran prepares for Western invasion as thaw in relations with the outside world boosts tourism industry

Negative perceptions of the Islamic Republic are changing. Golnar Motevalli reports from Tehran on its plans to cash in

Tehran

Beyond the vast, sun-drenched courtyard of Isfahan’s Imam Mosque and its intricate, 17th-century tiled stalactites, an audience of four Belgians and a Polish woman listens patiently to a young Iranian cleric.

Dressed in robes and Shia turban, he explains in flawless English the differences between Islam’s two dominant sects and why the religion tells women to cover their hair. Smiling, the Belgians then have photographs taken with the theologian.

“We want to try and establish relationships so more people visit,” Mostafa Rastegar, from a seminary in the holy city of Qom, said after his talk.

Foreign visitors to Iran are the most visible effect of President Hassan Rouhani’s drive to mend ties with the US and Europe, an influx that one his deputies said generated as much as £3bn for the sanctions-hit economy over the past year. International hotel chains are plotting a return to Iran for the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution, while European airlines are restoring links with Tehran.

Between 21 March and 20 April, the first month of the Iranian year, 4,594 foreign tour groups visited Iran, more than double the number that arrived in the same period last year, said Morteza Rahmani-Movahed, deputy of the government’s Tourism and Heritage Organisation. Iran wants to remove or ease visa requirements for 12 countries to draw more visitors, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi has said.

Saudi Arabia’s Rotana Group plans to open five-star hotels in Tehran and the Shia pilgrimage city of Mashhad.

Austrian Airlines resumed direct flights to Tehran in March and Iranian officials have been in talks with Alitalia to increase frequency on its routes, the official Fars News Agency has reported.

“The stability of the political situation will have an important impact on the economy,” Mr Rahmani-Movahed said. “There has to be a relationship with the rest of the world.”

Imam Square and the Imam mosque in Isfaha Imam Square and the Imam mosque in Isfaha (Getty Images)
Representatives from Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and several Arab countries, including Oman and Kuwait, have also visited Iran on “fact-finding” trips aimed at seeking future opportunities to invest in Iranian tourism, he said.

A moderate cleric, the 65-year-old President Rouhani has promised a rapprochement with the world powers that tightened economic sanctions on Iran under his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, over the country’s nuclear programme. Among his first pledges after taking office in August last year was a commitment to improve the quality of the tourism industry and draw more foreign travellers.

Tourism is a major part of Iran’s “economy of resistance”, Intelligence Minister Alavi has said, referring to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s programme to make the national less vulnerable to international sanctions over its nuclear plans.

Travel and tourism accounted for 6.3 per cent of Iran’s £286bn economy in 2012, according to an estimate by the World Economic Forum in a report last year.

Vice President Masoud Soltanifar, who also heads the heritage organisation, referred to a “tsunami of foreign tourists” currently hitting Iran.

Taking into account Shia pilgrims and visitors from neighbouring countries such as Azerbaijan, he said more than four million overseas visitors toured Iran from March 2013 to March 2014, each accounting for an estimated £713 of revenue, according to a report by the official Islamic Republic News Agency. In 2012, there were 3.8 million international tourist arrivals, according to the World Bank.

Lonely Planet said appetite for information about Iran has prompted the publisher to dedicate a chapter on the country in the update to its Middle East travel guide.

The Imam Khomeini mosque at the historical Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan The Imam Khomeini mosque at the historical Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan (Getty Images)
In the courtyard of the Abbasi Hotel in Isfahan, south of Tehran, packs of retirement-age Europeans sit among quince trees and date palms. Well-heeled Iranian teenagers take selfies against the backdrop of a restored 350-year-old caravanserai, once an inn for merchants passing along the Silk Road.

“This time last year, about 40 per cent of our guests were foreigners,” said Bakhtiar Haddadi, general manager of the Abbasi, said from his office overlooking the courtyard. This year “80 per cent of are from overseas”.

Mr Haddadi, who has managed the hotel for 14 years, said all 225 rooms were fully booked until June, with the exception of a few large suites kept empty for high-ranking guests. The hotel’s most expensive room, with bullet-proof windows and reproductions of Safavid-era Persian floral motifs, was once for the exclusive use of the deposed Shah of Iran and costs about £160 a night.

“Thankfully with the election and the changes that have taken place, we’ve seen a thawing of the ice,” Mr Haddadi said. “Negative perceptions of Iran are changing.”

Most tourists arrive during two peak seasons, April to early June and September to October, as part of package tours according to officials.

Many follow a route that takes them from Isfahan to the ancient Zoroastrian centre of Yazd and then on to the southern city of Shiraz, close to the 2,500-year-old ruins of the Achaemenid empire. The city is flanked by imposing craggy cliffs from where looms the granite-clad facade of a five-star hotel.

The Shiraz Grand opened six months ago to reap the rewards of a surge of foreign visitors. In its lobby Austrian tourist Edith Howorka, 61, had just returned from touring the palace of Darius the Great. She said her experience of Iran had so far been “absolutely positive”.

A tourist takes pictures inside the historic Pirnia House in the city of Nain A tourist takes pictures inside the historic Pirnia House in the city of Nain (Getty Images)
“I like to visit countries with a very interesting culture and history,” said Ms Howorka. “But during Ahmadinejad’s time it would never have struck me to come here. I would have felt like an enemy of the country.”

Younes Yahya, manager of Isfahan’s five-star Kowsar Hotel, the rival of the Abbasi, said more needs to be done to help different parts of Iran’s economy cater to visitors.

 “Right now different sectors act independently of each other and do not coordinate. We need a consortium for businesses related to the tourism industry,” he said

London teacher Ruth Standing, 33, who was travelling independently, said at a teahouse filled with trinkets in Isfahan that more could also be done to make it easier for tourists to prepare for a visit to Iran, such as information on visas.

“It was so difficult for me to get a visa,” said Ms Standing. “I was surprised to see so many tourists when I finally arrived here.”

In numbers

4 million Overseas visitors toured Iran in the year from March 2013.

£3bn Contributed to the Iranian economy for foreign tourists.

6.3% Proportion of the economy accounted for by travel and tourism in 2012.

£160 For a night in the hotel room once reserved for the Shah.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
i100
Sport
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
boxing
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments