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Iran counts on its cultural heritage to change image

ESFAHAN, Iran, June 3 (AFP) - Dorothea, a 69-year-old German, stands mesmerized before the blue dome of the "King's mosque" in Esfahan.

Ten years after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the Iranian revolution, Iran is counting on Dorothea Aschever and thousands like her to change the country's image abroad.

Dorothea and her husband Kurt, 72, said they were "bowled over" by the beauty of Esfahan and its fascinating mosques covered with arabesques, vivid porcelain tiles, stuccos and frescos, its minarets pointing up to heaven, and its noisy bazaar.

"I was a little bit nervous about it before coming, but we have not had any problems during our stay," said Dorothea.

"Foreigners have a false picture of Iran and worry that they won't be safe. We hope tourists will act as ambassadors to change this bad impression," Nasrollah Mostofi, who is in charge of tourism at the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance, told AFP.

Figures so far available show that Iran had around 200,000 European visitors and 255,000 Asians -- mainly Japanese -- in 1998, plus 3,400 tourists from North and South America, and 1,800 Australians.

The typical tourist is retired, interested in culture and eager for new horizons -- and not too demanding as far as comfort goes.

"In 1998, we earned 450 million dollars from tourism, and we hope to bring it to five billion by 2004," said Mostofi.

In order to achieve this ambitious target, which would be a substantial shot in the arm for the drained Iranian economy, the authorities say they are rea

dy to make a number of concessions -- but only within the limits of Islamic rules.

"The law demands that women cover their heads, and wear a coat, but the rules are not as strict for non-Moslems," said Mostofi, optimistically adding that visitors "like to respect the culture of the country."

Most women tourists do indeed dispense with the long coat, preferring instead to wear a long loose shift, and a light headscarf.

But foreign visitors still face many other rules which cannot be stretched.

Drinking alcohol remains strictly prohibited, and men and women cannot go swimming together either in the sea or in a swimming pool.

Azar, 45, an Iranian guide accompanying a group of Italian tourists, understands that being forced to wear a headscarf and comply with the dress code significantly restricts visits to spring and autumn and to older tourists.

"Younger people want to have some fun. They want to go swimming or dancing," she said.

Hugh and Louise Mathias, an Australian couple in their 60s, are not overly bothered by the restrictions. But they are put off by the lack of good hotels, and rudimentary service.

"If we want to be successful, we have to improve the comfort of our hotels and the quality of the service we offer," said Mostofi.

Training courses for hotel personnel in administration, service and catering began 18 months ago, he said.

Thanks to the election of moderate President Mohammad Khatami in 1997, the country's image has started to improve, after two decades of revolutionary rhetoric and and execrable reputation.

As Iran loosens up, it has already become easier for groups to obtain visas, and procedures are now to be simplified for individual travellers.

"In our new vocabulary, solo travel is a right," said Mostofi.

"Iran, whose cultural heritage puts it among the top 10 countries of the world, went through a long phase of reconstruction after the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, which did nothing to encourage tourism.

"But today we hope we can make our cultural riches famous throughout the world," he said.


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