New Islamic conference tackles age-old tourist problems:
money and fun
ISFAHAN, Iran, Oct 3 (AFP) - Ministers and top officials from some two
dozen Muslim nations on Tuesday opened the first-ever international conference
aimed at promoting tourism in the Islamic world.
Iran is hosting the gathering in the ancient city of Isfahan, one of
its touristic showpieces, as Muslim nations bid for a larger share of the
international travel industry whose annual revenues are estimated at around
440 billion dollars.
But with cheap air fares literally giving holiday-makers a world to
choose from, Muslim nations such as Iran -- where alcohol is forbidden
and women must keep covered from head to toe -- face a tough battle to
win the tourist dollar.
"Why should we look upon tourism from a Western point of view?"
said Mohammad Moezzaddine, Iran's deputy culture minister for tourism,
who points to the world's more than one billion Muslims as an untapped
"Only three nations -- Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan -- insist on
these kinds of limitations," he said. "We should look at developing
tourism in Islamic nations around the world."
According to statistics from the World Tourism Organisation, Islamic
countries get only around six percent of annual tourism revenues worldwide
-- what Moezzeddine calls "a low figure for lands which have been
home to most divine prophets and the cradle of great civilisations."
But while the conference is aimed at developing inter-Islamic tourism,
some officials say that relative poverty in many Muslim nations makes the
idea of an Islamic tourism industry impractical.
"If you take an Iranian, say, who makes 100 dollars a month, how
can he go to Malaysia or Singapore?" said one official at the conference
who asked not to be named. "There just isn't enough money."
Ghazi Bisheh, a consultant to the Jordanian tourism ministry, believes
that "relatively cheap tours" can help bring about more inter-Islamic
travel but said that in Jordan, "our emphasis has been primarily on
the American and European markets."
Moezzeddine acknowledged that there is also a need to counter "negative"
ideas about the Islamic world in order to attract more non-Muslim tourists,
especially to those countries where hotels and restaurants fall short of
He said talks are underway with the Islamic Development Bank in Saudi
Arabia to attract the capital needed to make tourism more viable in nations
such as Iran, where tourists are already foregoing some luxuries for the
experience of a lifetime.
He said there were also plans to discuss an international hotel chain
in which Islamic law would be observed, saying that visitors ultimately
care more about "our cultural heritage, our ecosystem, our people,
our shopping -- and our hospitality."
Yet others said privately that the boundless cultural heritage sites
in nations such as Iran are still not enough to win large numbers of Western
tourists, many of whom they believe are unwilling to spend their holidays
in a nation with social restrictions.
"Sightseeing is secondary for most people on holiday," said
one man in the tourist industry here who asked not to be named. "They
want to go out and have fun, and that isn't always compatible with these
But Moezzaddine, like many others here, believes that the attraction
of culture will win out in the end, pointing to an increase of nearly 30
percent in Iran's tourism industry in recent years.
Representatives from neighbouring Iraq and as far away as Brunei and
Bangladesh are here to develop an Islamic tourism industry -- even including
relaxed visa restrictions between nations -- that could prove the doubters
"Economically," said consultant Bisheh, "we'd like to
think this can work out."