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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 market.

"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 international standards.

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 restrictions."

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 wrong.

"Economically," said consultant Bisheh, "we'd like to think this can work out."


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