Iran's vice-president and the head of Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization has recently given an interview to The Associated Press, where he presented eye-opening statistics on Iran's tourism sector, promising that the country should get ready for a "tsunami" of foreign tourists in the coming months and years.
Like almost every aspect of Iranian life and economy, tourism was also hit hard by the tormenting sanctions that the United States and the European Union slapped on the country over its contentious nuclear program. Traveling to Iran had become an aching challenge as many European airliners had suspended their flights to Iran's major cities, the hardline government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wasn't willing to issue visas to so many European and American tourists, several nations including France and Britain were advising their citizens against traveling to Iran and above all, the foreign tourists thought of Iran as a frightening place where they could end up in prison or get kidnapped.
Above the sanctions, it's undeniable that the mainstream media played an awfully destructive role in the way Iran was viewed and perceived by the public in the West in the recent years. By continuously propping up the idea that Iran is an unsafe and dangerous country with unfriendly and vicious people who hate the Westerners - especially the Americans, the media conglomerates in the West painted Iran a hazardous demon, which should have been eschewed; a demon which didn't understand the language of logic and was totally irreconcilable, so it would be better to turn away from it. The catastrophic foreign policy of Ahmadinejad coupled with the misinformation campaign against Iran culminated in the country's detachment from global tourism industry, and Iran, home to one of the world's oldest and most ancient civilizations, became a lonely island which few people were interested in experiencing firsthand.
Even though at the height of tensions between Iran and the West over the nuclear file, there were adventurous European and American citizens who couldn't resist the lure of visiting the Ancient Persia and conceded to the hardships of traveling to Iran to explore the undiscovered homeland of Cyrus the Great, Rumi, ornate carpets, saffron and pistachio, the numbers were disappointing, indicating a global unwillingness to travel to Iran as long as its disputes with the United States and Europe over the nuclear file persisted.
However, with the election of moderate Hassan Rouhani as Iran's president in June 2013, Iran's tourism industry began to experience a boost spontaneously, and as President Rouhani promised sociopolitical openness, constructive engagement with the West, increased freedoms and the peaceful settlement of the nuclear controversy, the number of international tourists choosing Iran as one of their destinations for sightseeing and vacation in the Middle East soared dramatically.
A country that would normally receive 500,000 foreign visitors a year, was visited by 4.5 million international tourists from March 2013 to March 2014, meaning that it ranked 49th globally in terms of international tourist arrivals, hosting more tourists than such economically-prosperous nations as Qatar, Uruguay, Lithuania, Estonia and New Zealand. However, compared to its well-off neighbors, especially the UAE, which has turned into the hub of tourism in the Middle East, Iran is way lagging behind - and of course the historicity and background of the two nations is not analogous in any way: one was founded in 1971, and one had a magnificent empire around 600 BCE.
So, it sounds to me and many Iranians that the Geneva interim accord of November 2013, which was the first formal diplomatic agreement involving Iran and the United States in about 4 decades, and the subsequent Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was officially signed on July 14, 2015 -- and drew a relieving conclusion to more than a decade of tedious skirmish over Iran's nuclear dossier -- heralded a new beginning in Iran's relations with the community of nations, and a spring for Iran's falling tourism sector. With the foreign ministers and government officials of the EU countries racing with each other to travel to Tehran and hold talks with the Iranian authorities on the resumption and normalization of economic, financial, political and academic relations, the globetrotters are also flocking to Iran in an attempt to learn more about a land they've heard about a lot, but never seen by their own.
In a recent working trip to Pakistan, I met a senior American journalist who told me that she had visited Iran once before the 1979 revolution, and it was one of her best journeys ever. She was specifically dazzled by seeing Persepolis, the ancient ceremonial capital of the Persian Empire in southern Iran. She wished that with a thaw in Iran's relations with the United States, she could find the chance to come back - I think the time is ripe now, and nobody would be able to impede her visit. In 2014, 3,400 American citizens visited Iran, as said by Masoud Soltanifar, the Iranian vice-president interviewed by AP. Of course the figure is not significant, but let's not forget that there is no Iranian embassy or consulate all across the United States, and likewise there's no U.S. diplomatic representation in Iran; it has been so for 36 years. Nevertheless, in the absence of any sort of diplomatic relations, Iranians and Americans have been bridging the gaps and sending a signal to their governments through such people-to-people engagements that they're not happy with continued animosity between the two nations. And under the difficult circumstances created by the absence of embassies, it's quite impressive that some 3,400 Americans have been able to make it to Iran in a year, so why not more?
Iran is home to 19 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and never falls short of historical buildings, castles, mosques, churches, bridges, palaces, gardens, stunning natural magnets and an unusually hospitable people. I think there's nothing to stop Western tourists from backpacking and booking their flights to Tehran, and I'm convinced the Iranian vice-president didn't exaggerate when he said the country should brace for a tourists "tsunami." Those who usually come to Iran with a load of preconceptions and prejudgments return home with a new image of an Iran they could never envision: a nation which has its own flaws, but is sufficiently peaceful and amazing to be on the Time's list of the year's top 50 destinations for traveling in 2015.