Iran hopes to welcome 20 million tourists a year following nuclear deal
By Lizzie Porter, travel writer
Publish Date: 15 JULY 2015
Iran’s tourism industry looks set to grow rapidly following the lifting of economic sanctions, with more westerners looking to visit and plans being made for the development of tour companies, hotels and tourist facilities.
Rotana hotels group, based in Abu Dhabi, confirmed that it is opening four hotels in Iran, while AccorHotels, one of the world's leading hotel groups, has been linked to two four-star hotels in the capital, Tehran.
Iranians have welcomed the opportunity to develop the country’s historic buildings, ancient sites and its rugged mountains that are ideal for skiing and mountaineering.
The lifting of sanctions in place against the Islamic Republic will likely make arranging and carrying out trips easier for westerners, who have been visiting in growing numbers since the election of President Hassan Rouhani in 2013. If banking restrictions – which have been in place in various forms since the 1979 revolution – were removed it would facilitate booking transportation and hotels, withdrawing cash, and paying with credit cards when in the country.
• In pictures: Iran's travel highlights
Visiting foreigners currently have to go through complicated third parties in other countries to use credit cards to pay for souvenirs, such as Persian carpets. Mainstream online reservation platforms do not work, and even paying for a tour from the UK can be difficult.
Iran and western politicians struck a deal in Vienna that would see the Islamic Republic's nuclear development powers limited, in exchange for a lifting of the sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.
Iran has mountains suitable for trekking and climbing, such as Mt Damavand Photo: AP/FOTOLIA
British tour operators may also be able to increase the range of tours they offer to Iran, as improved banking and communications would mean easier relationships with ground operators. This is particularly key for Britons, who are currently only allowed to visit Iran on organised trips, as visas are not granted for independent travel and hotels cannot be booked without an agent.
David McGuinness, director of adventure travel company Travel the Unknown, and a regular visitor to Iran, said that making payments is “currently hugely difficult”, adding that “even payments between UK accounts where the name of an Iran tour is mentioned can be blocked. Payments to local suppliers are more difficult again. It is not yet clear when this might change – but at least the prospect is now on the horizon.”
A timeline for the easing of banking restrictions has not been agreed, although sanctions cannot be lifted until the US Congress has adopted this week’s deal, which will not be for at least 60 days.
Bekhradi's Historic House is a restored 400-year old house, now a hotel, in Isfahan Photo: Bekhradi's Historic House
Iranians are positive about how the lifting of sanctions will allow them to develop tourism businesses. Morteza Bekhradi, the owner of Bekhradi’s Historical House boutique hotel in Isfahan, hoped that the booking process would become easier. “Our current process for reservations is only carried out via exchange of emails with our guests, and our rooms are booked without any guarantee. It is of course not a convenient situation for tourists and for us, as people working in the tourism field.”
Mr Bekhradi - who transformed the traditional 17th-century house into a hotel that opened in 2005 - said that Iranians are “more than eager” to share their culture and history with foreigners, and that more internal and/or foreign investments in tourism would make the country’s transport infrastructure better.
• Iran: the new must-see holiday destination
In addition to the removal of banking sanctions, Mr Bekhradi said that reservation platforms, such as Booking.com, will need to show willing to work with Iran.
Up until now, those working in Iran's tourism industry - like the population at large - have faced high inflation, supply limitations and restricted Internet access, all of which make running a business difficult.
Online booking platforms may make accommodation reservations at places like Bekhradi's Historic House hotel much easier Photo: Bekhradi's Historic House
Raquel Martin, a nutritional therapist from London who went on a tour to Iran earlier this year, said that having to pay for everything in cash made unplanned shopping difficult, for fear of running out of money, but that she liked Iran's diversity, from the "architectural gem" of Isfahan to the bazaar and different cultures to be found in Kerman. She added: "Above all, I really liked the people - they are so warm and friendly, really keen to come up and talk to you and to show you their country. They are desperate to be part of the international community once again."
• In pictures: Iran as you've never seen it
Britons who want to visit Iran will continue to face difficulties, however. The Foreign Office still advises against visiting the country – making insurance hard to obtain – and visa applications are complicated and expensive because the Iranian Embassy in London has been shut since 2011. “People are inherently worried about travelling to what they see as a pariah state”, said Mr McGuinness. “The visa complications compound it, putting off all but the most determined, though that is a growing group, as the rewards are well worth it."
Spring chill out @Bekhradi_House #tourisme @PhotoTripIran@tourism_iran @MeetIran pic.twitter.com/w339t1n8ng
— Bekhradi's House (@Bekhradi_House) 14 Mai 2015
Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, told the House of Commons this week that he hoped to "be in a position" to reopen the British embassy in Tehran before the end of the year. Such consular representation may mean that the Foreign Office relaxes its travel advisories. A Foreign Office spokesperson said its travel advice remains the same despite the historic deal, while recommending that British nationals check its website regularly for updates.
• Foreign Secretary announces reopening of British embassy in Tehran
The ancient city of Persepolis is ubiquitous on tours of Iran Photo: AP
She added that Iran and Britain remained committed to a mutual reopening of embassies, and said "we will do so once we have resolved some outstanding issues."
Masoud Soltanifar, director of Iran's Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organisation (ICHHTO), said this week that foreign hotel groups from Germany, Greece, South Korea and Singapore had visited Iran to “study the Iranian tourism market and its growing attractions”, according to Iranian network Press TV.
Although Iran's tourism infrastructure remains woefully underdeveloped, Mr Soltanifar said that 11 hotels were built across the country last year, and that more are likely to be built.The ICHHTO director has previously stressed the importance of tourism for the country, outlining aims to attract 20 million visitors a year by 2025, generating up to $30 billion in revenues. Foreign visitor numbers are currently estimated at around four million.
The city of Yazd, on the edge of the desert, has mosques and mud-brick houses. Photo: AP
Rotana hotels group has four hotels in development in Iran – two in Mashhad and two in Tehran – all of which will open by 2018. Omer Kaddouri, president and CEO, said: “With the lifting of sanctions, we are sure that all developers and operators will be racing to secure their position in one of the world’s largest untapped markets.”
The former InterContinental hotel in Tehran, reputedly a favourite with journalists and diplomats in the last days of the Shah, is described by travellers as a faded example of pre-revolutionary luxury, but is currently run by the Iranian Laleh group.
InterContinental owners, the IHG group, which also operates Holiday Inn, told Telegraph Travel it did not have any hotels “in the pipeline” in Iran as the country is “not a key focus market for us”.
AccorHotels has been linked to two hotels in Tehran, and the group sees the country as ripe for development.
Christophe Landais, chief operating officer of AccorHotels Middle East, confirmed that the company was "in advanced negotiations regarding management agreements" for two Tehran hotels under the ibis and Novotel brands.
"We expect the recent agreements to potentially open up tremendous opportunities and rapid growth for the hospitality and tourism industry in Iran", he added.
Starwood and Hilton, who also used to manage hotels in Iran before contracts were severed, did not respond to requests for comment about potential development in Iran.
Iran has 19 sites on the Unesco World Heritage Site list – the most of any Middle Eastern country – with two new additions this year of Maymand in central Iran, and the archaeological site of Susa.
The cultural landscape of Maymand has been added to the Unesco world heritage site list Photo: Maymand Cultural Heritage Base
Ali Araghchi, founder of an unofficial tourism campaign for Iran, "Must See Iran" (mustseeiran.com) said he hoped to be able to show Iranian hospitality to the world, and claimed that foreigners already realise Iran has "2,500 years of culture and that our people are not terrorists.”
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque is one of the architectural masterpieces of Iranian architecture #MustSeeIran@JaapFrederiks pic.twitter.com/ouZ1FCvD8K
— Must See Iran (@MustSeeIran) 13 Juillet 2015
Some 300,000 photos have been shared on social media platforms as part of the "Must See Iran" campaign, showing the country’s dramatic mountains, clear Gulf seas and authentic bazaars.
Mr McGuinness highlighted other sites that feature on many itineraries to the country. “Yazd is the Zoroastrian [the predominant religion of Iran in the pre-Islamic period] focal point and one of the world's oldest mud-brick cities”, he said, while the city of Isfahan is, “the pinnacle of Islamic art and architecture that is full of mosques and palaces that require superlatives.”