Traveling in Iran: Myths vs. Reality
Iran and tourism. Due to its rather complicated political situation and its constant presence in the headlines of political news, for some of our readers this might sound like a weird idea. What is your personal experience?
People are often asking me, why is it that I have travelled to Iran more than sixty times? ‘Do you have family there?’ ‘Are you Muslim?’ ‘Oh, you’re gonna talk to mullahs there?’ ‘Stay safe, Miklós’… Besides the average shocked look these are the most frequent reactions even after twenty years when people (taxi drivers, new neighbors, but also members of the highly esteemed academia) unfamiliar with my personal interests in Iranian culture and history, still take venture on questioning my mental capacities before each Iranian trip. After more than twenty years now I’ve learnt how to smile politely and to play down these comments.
Is it possible to consider tourism in Iran a thriving business?
The average Iranian is an amazing traveler with a constant desire to visit their distant, not-so-distant and close relatives, enjoying sitting in the middle of green meadows or just in the vicinity of a polluted highway, drinking good Iranian black tea, chatting, partying, enjoying the thick and green forests and other beauties especially in Northern Iran in the Caspian provinces, a place of many sweet ‘khaterat-e shomali’. Travelling, however, is not only a hobby, but also a duty for more religious Iranians. This religious tourism is called ziarat. Let’s recall those crowded masses flocking to Mashad to the only twelver Shi’i Imam tomb within the boundaries of Iran or to Najaf and Karbala of Iraq especially during Ashura and Arba’in, the anniversaries of Imam Husain’s martyrdom. Imagine when hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims walk by foot from Iran to neighboring Iraq to make their pilgrimage to the holiest shrines of the Shi’i Islam (often on an annual level). Thus, travelling being an ‘ahl-e safar’ is both a passion and a religious duty in Iranian culture, ziarat and travelling are hardly discernible phenomenons in Iran.
As it is well known, Iran has an immense cultural heritage with a highly impressive amount of ancient historical monuments and enchanting landscapes. Just a few days ago UNESCO decided to accept fifty-four Iranian caravansarais as new world heritage sites of Iran.
These were both stunning news indeed, but, at the same time, a bit disappointing ones, at least for me. For, when I started reading the list of these caravansarais, I quickly realized, that still there are dozens of olden caravansarais which I haven’t seen. There are still a lot of new routes to discover in Iran in the next forty years.
Undoubtedly, the dazzling sites of Iranian history, the unique character of great pre-Islamic places such as Persepolis, Chogha Zanbil, Firuzabad, Naqsh-e Rostam and Bishapur, as well as centers of wonderful Islamic architecture such as the historic headquarters of Isfahan, Shiraz, Yazd, Kerman and Kashan all attract visitors coming from all over the globe. These breathtaking and well-preserved places all make Iran a very important destination for those interested in a country of high and sophisticated culture with age-old traditions.
In a broader perspective, Iran suffers from sanctions and also wider political isolation from Western countries. How does it impact tourism and specifically the issuance of visas?
The lack of mass tourism loaded with uneducated drunken figures and aggressively partying youngsters celebrating their bachelor/bachelorette parties in ridiculous costumes is definitely for the benefit of these Iranian places. Major Shi’i shrines in some cases do not allow non-Muslim visitors to their innermost parts to touch the zarihs, and sometimes these are the places where violent clashes break out, but in general most of the Shi’i mausoleums of the descendants of the twelve Shi’i Imams are also open for western tourists, though requirements for a more conservative dress to impress do exist at these places.
Generally, we have been witnessing a rapid development in the process of the issuance of Iranian visas for Europeans, Canadian and US citizens, though in the case Americans, Britons and Canadians the Iranian visa process is more complicated and more time consuming. Due to well-known political reasons, the itinerary of US citizens may contain less space for improvisation and the presence of a local guide is usually required at all times.
For which category of tourists would you recommend visiting Iran?
In my eyes a certain kind of positive aristocratism, pride and elegance has always been part of the Iranian mentality aiming at carefully preserving their own voice and style in the age of internationalism and multiculturalism. And in this sense, lovers of cultural tourism will definitely enjoy these marvelous and world-famous Iranian sites. Without any doubt, Iran is one of the best places for cultural tourism in the world where great historical and natural sites, a very warm and traditional hospitality, good hotels and delicious local culinary delights all create an interesting amalgam both for single travelers and tour groups.
How do you perceive Iranian culture?
Besides the above-mentioned aspects, it is the diversity of the Iranian culture which stuns me very often, even after more than sixty visits. Iran is simply one of the most colorful countries of our globe where we find great places in almost every village, but it is the good words and friendly smile of the locals which makes an Iranian trip truly unforgettable. Many Iranians, both young and elder, have a good command of English and if you wish to meet people who are able to talk extensively about obscure Eastern European filmmakers and actors or if you wish to purchase the brand-new Persian translation of the most celebrated writers of your homeland, you should definitely visit Iran to meet these characters. Sometimes my impression is that it is perhaps this kind of less-individualist approach and curious attitude and personal warmth of many Iranians mixed with culture which we sorely miss in our societies to a certain extent.
What are the general limitations that tourists should take into consideration when visiting Iran?
Of course, Iranian tourism has its own limitations and challenges often struggling with many obstacles, mainly political and economic ones, which from time to time create some troubles and backlashes. It is an undeniable fact that Iran is in the middle of an often shaky and troubled region, which, we should admit, can be hardly attractive for groups of culture-vultures. Sometimes internal news cast a shadow on Iran too, which is a nightmare for every tourism expert, skilled and experienced tour operator.
Furthermore, women hijab (headscarf) issues and the ban of alcohol consumption are the leading additional difficulties which rule the agenda regarding Iran. Yes, we cannot drink alcohol in Iran and there are no prospects in the near future to change this ban. Headscarf issues are more complicated than the alcohol ban, but despite the past one year where signs of a different civil attitude have already started emerging regarding the Iranian hijab issue, foreign women travelers as guests of Iran still need to follow the official regulations despite the fact that it can cause inconvenience.
However, despite all of the vicissitudes and negative tendencies, Iranian tourism has been able to resurrect repeatedly like a beautiful phoenix bird and has remained more than attractive for many of us. I personally see a great potential in the Iranian tourism industry, both for the individual travelers themselves, as well as travel agencies from all over the world willing to present their customers the option of visiting this truly unique and fascinating country.