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'It can last and it's terrifying'
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Danish director Lars von Trier
tvEnglish-language series with 'huge' international cast set for 2016
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
tech
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
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

    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 ...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Day In a Page

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering