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Iran looks to boost tourism, quell fears

TEHRAN, Sept 7 (AFP) - Iran's state tourism board wants laws put in place to protect foreign tourists amid fears last month's kidnapping of four Westerners is harming the industry, officials said Tuesday.

"No one should have the right to play with the lives of foreign tourists and harm the interests of the country," said Hassan Emami, director of the board's international division.

He told a Tehran press conference that the board was "disturbed by developments and wants to assure the safety of our foreign tourists," adding that it backed stiff punishment for those who harm tourists.

Some 70 MPs have drafted legislation calling for harsh penalties "for any attack on foreign nationals in Iran for purposes of tourism," Emami said.

"The entire leadership of the regime is united" in the effort, he said, noting that tourism was especially important among other nations in the region.

"We are clearly aiming first of all to boost regional tourism, particularly with other Persian Gulf nations such as Saudi Arabia," he said, adding that as of next month there would be three flights weekly between Iran and the kingdom.

Tourism is an important source of non-oil revenues for Iran's struggling economy and officials expressed grave concern last month that the industry would be set back by the kidnap of four Westerners by drug smugglers.

Armed gunmen abducted three Spaniards, two of them priests, along with an Italian and an Iranian national from their hotel in the southern province of Kerman last month.

The men were eventually released unharmed after 17 days in captivity but officials said the incident could have damaged the Islamic republic's image as a desirable vacation destination, especially as three Italians were held one week in a similar incident in June.

Throughout the crisis Iranian officials took pains to say that they did not want the kidnapping to hurt the industry, which they are hoping to transform into a billion dollar a year money-spinner.

The head of Kerman security announced during the crisis that Iranian officials were working to free the hostages "without any harm coming to them, our tourism industry or Iran's image in the eyes of the world."

Despite Iran's rich archaeological and historical heritage, tourism has been slow to develop in recent years, in part because of cultural restrictions put in place after the Islamic revolution of 1979 as well as the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. Emami said some one million tourists visited Iran last year.

Potential visitors to the Islamic republic must usually wait a minimum of around 12-14 days to receive a visa.

Emami also called for increased consular facilities for foreign visitors, hoping to give a badly needed boost to an industry that is one of the few bright spots in Iran's stumbling economy.

Some 85 percent of Iran's foreign currency revenues come from oil exports, as well as roughly half the state budget, and officials would like the tourism industry to pick up some of the slack.

He said the tourism board will hold a week-long exposition later in the month to showcase the various regional highlights of Iran.

"We are trying to centralise our efforts and


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