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Esfahan seeks to woo back foreign tourists

ESFAHAN, Iran, Dec 2 (AFP) - This ancient city on the edge of the Iranian desert is sprucing up its majestic blue-tiled mosques, vast open square and centuries-old bazaar to woo back wary tourists after 20 years of isolation.

"Our country gets about half a million tourists a year and we could do with 10 million," said Hossain Payghambary, a carpet trader whose tiny shop on the huge Maidan-e-Imam square has become a de facto tourist office for the handful of adventurous travellers who pass through the city.

Esfahan governor Mohammad Javadi unveiled plans this month to pump almost half of the municipality's budget or around 185 billion rials (around 62 million dollars at the official exchange rate) on scores of tourism projects in the city long known in Farsi as Nefse-Jahan or "half the world."

The number of foreign tourists to Esfahan has tripled this year from 1997 levels, Javadi said, without giving specific figures, while calling on foreign entrepreneurs to invest in hotels and tourist attractions in the city.

In total some 600,000 tourists and Islamic pilgrims, mainly from Central Asia, visited the Islamic republic in 1996, bringing in just 300 million dollars in hard currency for the cash-strapped government, according to the latest official statistics.

"Of course we want tourists back, but we don't want hamburger joints here, there should be respect for our Islamic traditions," said Payghambary, nevertheless mulling ideas for such revolutionary trinkets as Ayatollah Khomeini watches and T-shirts.

Esfahan dates back around 2,500 years but its "golden age" as Iran's capital was in the late 16th and 17th centuries when Shah Abbas oversaw the building of much of the city's Islamic architecture, including several vast mosques and arched bridges spanning the river Zayandeh-Rood.

It remains a bustling trade and handicrafts centre, with carpets, ceramics, enamelwork and printed cloth among the specialties of the region.

One passageway in the 1,300 year-old bazaar still reverberates to the sound of craftsmen beating away at vast copper pots, in another an elderly man handprints woven cotton cloths while in a nearby teahouse the city's menfolk gather to smoke the "ghalyan" or water pipe.

Roger Stevens, British ambassador to Iran in the 1950s, predicted in his 1962 book "The Land of the Great Sophy" on the former Persia that Esfahan would soon be an obligatory stop on a "world tour of Monumental Cities."

But less than 20 years later Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic revolutionaries had seized power from the Shah, Iran had turned its back on the outside world, and the number of tourists dried up to a trickle.

"Before I came people said I was crazy to go to Iran. We have lots of ideas about this country, that it's dangerous and repressive, so I was really surprised at the real thing," said Wendy Butler, a 28-year-old graphic designer from London.

President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist elected in May 1997, has expressed dismay over the sluggish tourism industry and called for an improvement of transport and hotel services as well as the easing of cumbersome customs and visa regulations.

"Unfortunately, our revenue from tourism is very low despite the fact that Iran is among the top 10 richest countries in terms of archeological sites," he said at a tourism seminar earlier this month.

The government decided in 1990 to revive the industry and attract more tourists, but has had little success -- mainly due to strict Islamic rules, including a ban on the consumption of alcohol and dress codes for women.

"Yes, I object to being told to cover up," said Briton Dee Elrick, who was leading an overland tour across the Middle East to Nepal.

"But somehow wearing a chador means I can better experience what life is all about here, particularly as a women, rather than just looking on as a tourist in shorts and T-shirt. That's what makes Iran so unusual," she said.

Copyright © 1997 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form