Iran Boosts Tourism Efforts, Targets Wealthy Gulf States, Russia, and China

A Noticeable Shift Towards Chinese, Russian, and Arabic-speaking Tourists Amid Decline in Western Visitors

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Iran Endeavors to Boost Its Sanctions-Hit Economy by Attracting Tourism from Wealthy Gulf and Neighboring Countries
On July 3, 2023, individuals were spotted touring the Bagh Gandom Ab-Anbar, a cistern dating back to the Safavid era (1501-1736), located in the central city of Yazd, Iran.

Amid increasing international isolation, Iran is strategically enhancing its tourism sector by appealing to tourists from wealthy Gulf states, Russia, and China. Discover the rich cultural history and stunning landscapes of this often-overlooked tourist destination.

Iran is reinvigorating its tourism industry, with an emphasis on attracting wealthy tourists from Gulf Arab states, Russia, and China, to invigorate its sanctions-stricken economy. Normally bypassed by Western tourists, Iran is intensifying efforts to allure visitors to its rich historical sites, dating back to the Persian Empire and the famed Silk Road.

This year, thanks to a diplomatic thaw brokered by Beijing between Iran and Saudi Arabia, direct flights have become a possibility. Iran is also aiming to forge closer bonds with countries spanning from Egypt to Morocco. This strategic shift is becoming increasingly visible at popular tourist attractions, where tourists are more likely to be overheard conversing in Arabic, Chinese, or Russian rather than English, French, or German.

Hamid Shateri, a 46-year-old Tehran travel agency owner, notes that the number of tourists from Europe has seen a sharp decline. “Europeans are afraid of visiting Iran,” he admits. In the wake of long-lasting tensions over Iran’s disputed nuclear program and subsequent travel warnings issued by Western governments, the typical tourist demographic has evolved. Shateri observes that it’s now predominantly Chinese and Russian individuals who are drawn to the country’s historical sites and stunning landscapes, while Arab tourists, especially from Iraq, come to partake in religious ceremonies.

The appeal of Iran as a travel destination is not new. Its long history and rich culture, including ancient cities like Shiraz, Isfahan, and Mashhad, and the 2,500-year-old Persepolis complex, have drawn foreign visitors for years. The country’s diverse natural beauty, ranging from deserts and snow-capped mountains to Gulf and Caspian Sea coastlines, combined with its renowned cuisine and tradition of hospitality, offers a unique experience for the discerning traveler.

Despite the strict dress code for women and prohibitions on alcohol and nightlife following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, a consistent stream of mainly European visitors continued to visit Iran. As the largest Shiite Muslim power, Iran also attracts a steady stream of religious pilgrims, many from neighboring Iraq, to its ancient shrine cities of Mashhad and Qom.

Hopes for a lucrative boost to tourism were high following a landmark deal in 2015. Iran and major powers reached an agreement to restrict its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. However, this optimism was shattered three years later when the then US president Donald Trump unilaterally pulled out of the agreement.

In the aftermath, Iran suffered a series of blows. The Covid pandemic, which hit Iran early and hard, added to the crisis. Last year, mass protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini – arrested for allegedly flouting the dress rules – caused further instability. This, coupled with a series of Europeans jailed in the country, led to multiple Western countries advising their citizens against all travel to Iran.

Despite these challenges, Iran is now making a concerted effort to rebuild its tourism industry. This includes efforts to attract people from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to the Gulf islands of Kish and Qeshm. These islands offer pristine beaches, luxury hotels, and cheap shopping opportunities.

Moreover, Iran is also seeking to attract more visitors from neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan, even in light of recent tensions between Tehran and Baku. “Setting up tourism exhibitions in other countries, advertising through their media, and hosting international events are among the programs to promote tourism,” said Majid Kiani, the CEO of northwest Iran’s Aras Free Zone.

Despite these initiatives, analysts warn that it will take some time for the number of European tourists to rebound. Babak Babali, a tourism analyst, warns that “while these steps signal Tehran’s intention to deescalate tensions, it will take a while before this gets reflected in the number of tourists from Europe”.

Tour guide Hamid Shateri shares a similar sentiment, emphasizing that “Iran needs to improve its international relations and show the world that it has a peace-seeking nature if it wants to attract more tourists.” As Iran takes steps towards this goal, it hopes to see a steady increase in tourist numbers in the coming years.

Iran Boosts Tourism Efforts, Targets Wealthy Gulf States, Russia, and China

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