Are you looking for a unique place where to spend your holidays? Something original and perhaps a bit eccentric ? A country where nobody will speak English or German at the next table in the restaurant or at the bar? If you are, don't hesitate, buy a ticket for Iran.
Ten years after the revolution, Iran is slowly opening its doors to tourists. Mehdi Hashemi, President Rafsanjani's cousin and vice-chairman of the "Mostazafin" foundation, said, "President Rafsanjani wants tourists to come back to Iran. In the future, tourism could bring more foreign currency than oil".
As chairman of Azadi International Tourism Organisation (AITO), Mehdi Hashemi controls most of iran’s luxury hotels which, like the former Hilton, now called the Azadi, were expropriated after the revolution and given to the Mostazafin foundation. He is currently in the process of contacting foreign travel agencies with the hope of attracting tourists and foreign curency.
Are all tourists welcome in Iran, or do the Mullahs who rule the country prefer particular categories of tourists, for example aged and quiet people? "Absolutely not,we don't exclude anybody”, says Mehdi Hashemi. “We have already had many groups of young people, without any problems whatsoever". There are no hard and fast regulations, adds the man who is charge of promoting tourism in Iran; the only real ones are that women must cover themselves, and the drinking of alcohol is forbidden. "But we have noticed tourists find it interesting to live a few days with us and to have a chance to familiarize themselves with our civilisation and our revolution".
In fact, as one of Mehdi Hashemi's assistant admits, "The doors of Iran are not completely open”. There are still high level people who consider that to entice Western tourists to Iran for a "handful of dollars", is to "betray the ideals of the Iranian revolution". However, with close association with some of Iran’s highest-ranking officials Mehdi hashemi looks set to get his way.
Iran offers many attraction to foreign tourists.
Travel agencies are probably charging tourists for their room in US dollars, but since new exchange regulations were promulgated in january 1991, it is now among the cheapest countries in the world for foreign visitors. At the official legal exchange rate, one dollar is worth about 1.4OO rials -- which means that a dinner in an excellent Indian restaurant on the exclusive Vali Asr Avenue costs about three dollars per person and an airline ticket on internal routes can cost less than 5 dollars. Excellent copies of Italian style shoes, wireless telephones and caviar are real bargains. A tin of 2OO grams of caviar costs less than $2O, a fraction of its cost elsewhere in the world, although exportation is forbidden).
Usually the tours organised by travel agencies include only a brief stop-over in Teheran. Tourists should not lament. Besides its wonderful, and deserted, museums and the bazar, the capital does not warrant a long stay. It is still possible to enjoy a stroll along Vali Asr Avenue, Mohseni Square and Roosevelt Street where most of Iran’s fashionable shops are concentrated. In these chic passages, one could almost forget that this is Iran.
The country’s real heart beats in Isfahan
And it is in this wonderful city that one encounters an immutable Iran which does not change despite the revolutions. True, the Royal Square has become Imam Square, but from Ali Qapu's Terrace one can still admire one of the most beautiful views in the world. The 4O columns palace,the Tchehel Sotoun, one of the most famous monuments in Isfahan, has found a new glory since the Iranian authorities removed the sheets and the plaster which used to cover some of the exquisite mural paintings once deemed too libertine to be on public view by the fundamentalist censors.
A city inside the city, with its miles of narrow roofed alleys, its mosques, fountains, caravanserais and its thousands of shops, Isfahan's bazar is undoubtedly among the world's most beautiful. A giant portrait of Khomeini at the entrance reminds the visitor that times have changed; but its shopkeepers and artisans are still active and wealthy. For your pleasure ask to see some Persian carpets or embroidered cashmere.Unfortunately it is not possible to buy most of the items on sale since they would be confiscated at the airport. However, you may purchase a shawl stamped with traditional designs, a silk scarf (a real bargain, at less than $6) or a copper bowl exquisitely decorated by miniaturist painters who maintain an old Isfahan tradition.
Tourists can visit now all parts of Iran without restrictions. Shiraz, but also Bakhtaran (the former Kermanshah) Kerman, Yazd and Bam, the fantomatic city of mud houses which help create one of Iran's most romantic skyline. Archeology fans can again visit Pasargades and Persepolis. Those in search of rare impressions can, in summer, also visit the Caspian sea, and enjoy the unique pleasure of swimming on separated beaches for men and women who bathe under the supervision of a veiled female guard! And in winter, amateurs can ski on different pistes for men and women. To be a tourist in the land of the chador one has to observe some irritating rules, but it should not be forgetten that, even seen through a tchador, Iran remains one of the most fascinating countries in the world.
(The Middle East magazine, December 1991)
Droits de Reproduction strictement réservés © Chris Kutschera 2002