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    Tourists flock to Iran's 'image of the world'-Aljazeera

    Isfahan - Tourists flock to Iran's 'image of the world'-Aljazeera


    aljazeera/Tourists flock to Iran's 'image of the world
    By Megan O'Toole 
    Publish date 6 May 2017

    The Shah Mosque is among Isfahan's primary tourist draws [Wojtek Arciszewski/Al Jazeera]

    The Shah Mosque is among Isfahan's primary tourist draws [Wojtek Arciszewski/Al Jazeera]

    Isfahan, Iran - Sunlight spills across the turquoise and sapphire dome of the Shah Mosque in Isfahan's Naqshe Jahan Square, and in its shadow, dozens of tourists hold cameras aloft to capture the memory.

    The square's name translates to "image of the world", and countless feet have crossed these grounds to marvel at the World Heritage site first-hand.

    "Gardens, palaces, mansions, mosques, schools, bazaars, magnificent bridges and most of all, the splendid square of Naqshe Jahan, all are the memories that stick in the mind of any travellers who visit Isfahan," the American linguist AV Williams Jackson wrote more than a century ago, after his own trip to the central Iranian city. "The memory remains so vivid and stable that it even won't get blurred after months and years."

    Tourists ride horse-drawn carriages through Naqshe Jahan Square [Wojtek Arciszewski/Al Jazeera]

    Tourists ride horse-drawn carriages through Naqshe Jahan Square [Wojtek Arciszewski/Al Jazeera]


    Today, Isfahan remains one of Iran's biggest tourist draws: An inquiry to the reservations desk at its landmark Abbasi Hotel, recently lauded by CNN as "the Middle East's most beautiful hotel", revealed that it was fully booked for the next three months.

    Mohammad Izadkhasti, Isfahan's tourism deputy, says the city needs tens of thousands more hotel rooms to meet growing demands [Wojtek Arciszewski/Al Jazeera]


    Other hotels throughout the city are routinely filled to capacity as tourists have flocked to Isfahan in increasing numbers since the implementation of Iran's 2015 nuclear deal, according to municipal officials.

    "In the past two years, I can say the number of incoming tourists has been three times more than we had before the deal. More important are the investment figures. Investment has been exceptional, several times more, since the nuclear deal," Mohammad Izadkhasti, the city's tourism deputy and an adviser to Isfahan's mayor, told Al Jazeera from inside his bright, airy office, citing significant investments in the accommodation and recreation sectors.

    "The current hotel infrastructure and accommodation capacity of the city is very low," he added. "There are currently 15,000 rooms, but statistics show we need at least 150,000."

    Visitors sip tea in the courtyard of the landmark Abbasi Hotel [Wojtek Arciszewski/Al Jazeera]


    The rise in tourism numbers in Isfahan mirrors a countrywide trend: Since the 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani and the ensuing nuclear agreement, tourism numbers have surged, increasing to 5.2 million in 2015 from 3.8 million in 2012. Revenue for tourism in 2015 exceeded $8bn in Iran, which is home to 21 World Heritage sites, including the majestic ruins of Persepolis, the Persian Garden properties and the historic bazaar complex in Tabriz.

    Pejman Abdolmohammadi, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics Middle East Centre with expertise in Iran, noted that the "trust of tourists, particularly from Western countries, [has] started to increase". 

    Among the most popular evening gathering spots in the city is the historic Allahverdi Khan Bridge [Wojtek Arciszewski/Al Jazeera]


    "Economically speaking, Iran at the moment needs foreign investment. Working on creating more security and stability in the political field would be the best strategy," Abdolmohammadi told Al Jazeera. "Iran has many tourist sites … [including from] the pre-Islamic era and Islamic architecture that have immense potential for tourism, which is still not discovered."

    Should Washington tinker with the nuclear deal, tourism could suffer in the short term - but within the next decade or two, Iran is nonetheless on track to continue rebounding as a strong actor in the industry, he said.

    "Iran as a player is coming back to the scene," Abdolmohammadi said. "The first, very small signal has been the [recent increase in tourism and investment], even though that is just the very beginning of this comeback. Economically speaking ... the alliances that Iran may create with India, Japan and other players could create a new Asiatic actor going beyond the Middle East."

    Outside this restaurant in Naqshe Jahan Square, a long queue of people wait to be seated for lunch [Wojtek Arciszewski/Al Jazeera]


    Many within Iran's tourism industry echo this optimism. According to Mohammad Dorri, a 36-year-old mechanical engineer who has worked as a tour guide for the past five years, the recent easing of visa restrictions for many foreign tourists - along with the lifting of international sanctions - has resulted in a massive boom for his agency's business.

    Iran is home to 21 World Heritage sites [Wojtek Arciszewski/Al Jazeera]


    "Over the past two years, there have been around 10 times more incoming tourists than in previous years," Dorri told Al Jazeera, noting that his agency handled an influx of around 500 tourists last year.

    "The classic destinations we get the most requests for are Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, Kerman, Yazd; the more experienced tourists also ask to see Tibriz and the Caspian Sea region. Isfahan is always one of the most popular requests."

    But Dorri and others have stressed the need to better advertise Iran's tourism offerings and to bolster the country's lagging tourism infrastructure - particularly as the government has announced an ambitious plan to attract more than 20 million tourists by 2025.

    Craftsman Reza Galily works on a copper plate at a tourist shop in Isfahan [Wojtek Arciszewski/Al Jazeera] 


    "When tourists from Western countries want to book a hotel here [in Isfahan], either it's not available, or he or she can stay just one or two nights, when they might have wanted to stay a week here because there's a lot to see," Izadkhasti said. "It goes without saying that the city loses a lot of money."

    To help deal with the continuing influx, the city has taken a number of steps, including bringing taxation for building hotels in Isfahan to zero and making plans to convert a number of historic houses into accommodation facilities, he said.

    Tourists snap photos of the elaborate artwork inside one of Isfahan's historic churches [Wojtek Arciszewski/Al Jazeera]


    Al Jazeera recently spoke with a number of tourists exploring Isfahan, and despite ongoing geopolitical tensions in the region and increasingly harsh rhetoric towards Iran from the United States, none expressed any concerns about visiting the country.

    From a rooftop plateau in the grand Ali Qapu Palace, German tourist Nils Schmidt-Soltau, 38, gazed out across the manicured lawns of Naqshe Jahan Square. He said that he could not have imagined a trip to Iran without a stop in Isfahan, noting he was struck by "the culture, the monuments and the friendliness of the people".

    Visitors sip hot drinks and snack on saffron-flavoured treats inside this tea shop in Naqshe Jahan Square [Wojtek Arciszewski/Al Jazeera]


    Outside the Shah Mosque, Swiss tourist Betty Dumas, 64, said that she and her friends visited Tehran and Shiraz before coming to Isfahan: "[We came] to discover the country, and it's quite easy now to get a visa."

    Still, Reza Galily, who works in a local shop chiselling exquisitely detailed designs into copper plates, pointed out that tourism in the area had not reached its full potential. Surrounded by turquoise and silver coloured plates, he acknowledged that despite the recent rise in numbers, "the types of tourists who spend a lot cannot come and spend a lot here" due to the exclusion of foreign debit and credit cards from the market.

    Iran rakes in billions of dollars in tourism revenue annually [Wojtek Arciszewski/Al Jazeera]


    Meanwhile, outside Isfahan's popular Shahrzad Restaurant, clusters of people wait for upwards of half an hour to enjoy steaming plates of kebabs under the soft light of stained-glass windows and mirrored ceiling inlays.

    Turquoise and sapphire, the trademark colours of Isfahan, are woven throughout this intricate mosque ceiling design [Wojtek Arciszewski/Al Jazeera]


    Elsewhere, tourists stop to examine the centuries-old paintings inside Vank Cathedral, or to sip sugary tea in the lilac-scented garden of the Abbasi Hotel. Among the most popular evening gathering spots in the city is the historic Allahverdi Khan Bridge, where locals and tourists alike converge to sing songs, fly kites and spread out picnic blankets under the night sky.

    "The most important thing about the city that has attracted many tourists over the years is its cultural identity, which has continued over thousands of years. There has never been a cultural gap," Izadkhasti said. "When tourists come to the city, they can take a tour through the heart of history from different periods. In many cities there is an old part of town and a new part of the city; the old part of the city is open for tourists, and they come and see and enjoy it.

    "But Isfahan is like a museum," he added. "Every corner of the city is integral ... It has developed its own cultural identity. This is what's most interesting for tourists."

    'Every corner of the city is integral ... It has developed its own cultural identity' [Wojtek Arciszewski/Al Jazeera]


    Abridged from:  Al Jazeera


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    This workshop is designed according to the UNESCO World Heritage Education Programme in order to give young people a chance to voice their concerns and to become involved in the protection of our common cultural and natural heritage. It seeks to encourage and enable tomorrow’s decision-makers to participate in heritage conservation and to respond to the continuing threats facing our World Heritage. The idea of involving young people in World Heritage preservation and promotion came as a response to Article 27 of the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (World Heritage Convention). Furthermore, Patrimonito means 'small heritage' in Spanish and the character represents a young heritage guardian. Patrimonito has been widely adopted as the international mascot of the World Heritage Education Programme.
    Date: 29th December
    Number of trainees: 7
    Duration: 3 hours

    The workshop of "Patrimonito" was held on 29th of December. Participants arrived around 10:30 and they were welcomed by hot chocolate and Persian cup cakes. After a little introduction by trainers and trainees, the process started by making two groups and letting them choose a name for their group, each group was accompanied by a mentor then each group was given some images of world heritage sites in Iran and some descriptions, each group was asked to match images and descriptions, the mentor was guiding them throughout the activity. All trainees were participating actively and trying to remember their experiences about their travels to these places. When they were done with the activity, the mentors started giving the answers and a brief explanation about each site; mentors were using trainees’ ideas and experiences to complete their tasks.

    Shortly after that, the second part started which was a presentation done by two of mentors. The aim of this presentation was to define the value of these world heritage sites and duties of each person as a "Patrimonito", and what happens if there is no "Patrimonito" and nobody cares about our tangible or intangible heritage. In this part trainees started questioning and understanding the whole concept of being a "Patrimonito", they also added their own suggestions on how to protect our heritage and by the end of this part, they were completely aware about their role as a "Patrimonito".
    Now it was a best time to have a short break, during the break trainees were introduced to some of intangible heritages as they were served by traditional food and snacks and even they way of serving was according to traditions and everyone had this opportunity to discuss about intangible heritage while enjoying some traditional food and snacks.
    When the break was done, everyone was asked to choose a heritage either tangible or intangible and they had to introduce their chosen heritage to a tourist by making a postcard using what they have learnt. They were given all of necessary tools such as color papers, color pencils, glue, scissors, images of heritage and a mentor was with them in order to help them completing the task.

    When they were done, they handed out their postcards and with the mentors they sat together and spent a few minutes asking and answering about what they have learnt. Then they were told to say their vows for protecting their heritage and caring about it, the mentor said the vow and the trainees repeated after her and they officially became a "Patrimonito".

    The last but the best part was when they were given the certificates, and they were told that since they are aware of the value of the heritage and they know how to protect it, they are chosen as "Patrimonito" and they should continue their mission by introducing the value of heritage to others. They were granted certificates and labels and the workshop of "Patrimonito" was finished by taking some memorial photos.