Iran’s tourism industry struggles to meet growing demand
By Alireza Ramezani
Publish Date: Jan17, 2014
TEHRAN, Iran — Iran has witnessed more than 30% growth in tourism since last year. Administration officials say it’s just the beginning of a boom in the country’s untapped sector, which is set to create millions of jobs and bring billions of dollars to the economy in the near future.
Tourism in Iran came under the spotlight after The Guardian placed the country, early in January, as No. 11 on its list of “Holiday hotspots: where to go in 2014.” The British newspaper wrote, “There hasn't been a better time for Westerners to visit Iran since the 1979 revolution,” noting that the country is safer than ever thanks to the “November’s historic nuclear agreement” between Iran and the P5+1 nations, the five UN Security Council permanent members plus Germany.
Financial Times, The Telegraph and Los Angeles Times all shared the same idea that the nuclear deal sent a signal to the world that Iran is a hot, and now safe, travel destination to travel. The Los Angeles Timesreported on Dec. 30 that the nuclear deal “has already produced a boomlet in American travel to Iran.”
Iranian government data, however, shows that the increase in the number of visiting foreigners began last spring, when no deal had been signed, and former populist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was still in office.
Some experts believe the data shows that the growth in tourism owes much to the recent regional developments rather than the new government’s policies. Ebrahim Pourfaraj, chairman of the Iranian Tourism Operators Association, says the political crises in main tourist hubs in the Middle East — Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia and Libya — over the past few years caused global attention to shift to Iran, a country with 16 sites mentioned on UNESCO’s World Heritage list and a relatively safer place than its regional rivals.
But the same experts acknowledge that the Geneva deal did accelerate the growth pace of the Iranian tourism.
Since being elected, President Hassan Rouhani has several times announced that his administration has planned to expand the tourism sector. He has even set a goal of more than doubling, to 10 million, the number of foreigners who visit Iran each year. That means the sector would be able to create up to 4 million jobs — a response to the worrying unemployment rate of 18.5%.
Iran's “20-Year Vision” document projects the country will attract the ambitious number of 20 million foreign tourists each year by 2015.
But the question is: How likely is it for the government to achieve the set goals?
Among the main problems tourists are facing in Iran is the failure of domestic banks to provide services to foreign clients. It’s rarely possible for visiting foreigners to have access to their original accounts since sanctions have restrained international banking operations in Iran. As a result, most visitors have no alternative but carrying cash with them.
Tourists from some countries need no visa while others can buy a visa on arrival. For many foreign visitors, however, it has been a “stringent” process. If a surge in demand is to happen in Europe and the United States, the Foreign Ministry, in close cooperation with security organizations, should make a drastic move.
Najafi says the government is dividing world countries into three groups: Those not requiring a visa; those not requiring a visa if visiting as part of a tour group; and countries that would be able to obtain a visa on arrival. He says most Western countries would likely be included in the second or third categories.
The cultural conflict could be neutralized, to large extent, by millions of Iranians believed to be hospitable and friendly by most standards.
As predicted, Iran has a great potential to turn into a tourism hotspot, but to turn ideas into reality, the Rouhani administration needs to be more realistic and determined, and make every effort to address not only the economic and financial problems, but also the political and cultural barriers.
Abridged from: Al-monitor