By Khodadad Rezakhani
Economic issues have always been a big subject of controversy in Iranian circles. Time and again we have been told that oil reserves will dry up one day and we will become dirt poor. Family "economists", aka grownups around the sofreh on lazy Friday afternoons, always had all sorts of opinions. The most popular was: If this country is to get anywhere, we better close the oil wells (dar-e chaahe nafto bebandim). Sounds tempting, but how? There have been countless commentaries by economists and experts, both in support and against this idea. I am neither supporting nor opposing, just offering a possible alternative.
Many people talk about Iran and tourism, almost as often as they talk about oil. We have beautiful beaches, amazing art, and ancient buildings. And everybody wonders why we don't even have a fraction of the tourists other countries attract every year.
Iran's tourist attractions have the potential of providing the country with enough money to cover at least half the national budget. Let's see: there is Persepolis, Bistoon, Kangavar Temple, Shiz Firehouse, Soltaniyeh, Borj-e Toghrol, Lalejin, Ali Sadr cave, Ghamsar, Ghaaenaat, Raabsar, Lahijan, Mordaab Anzali, Zigurat-e Choghaazanbil, Tomb of Daniel, Tomb of Esther, Bandar-e Torkman, etc. Never mind the obvious, such as Isfahan, Shiraz, Mashhad, Yazd, Kerman, Tabriz...
Now, the question is why is our tourism industry so dead? Right away, I am sure, you come up with a single answer: the current government. That's a big part of the problem, but not all of it. Iran was not considered a major tourist spot even before the revolution. I think some of the problem lies in lack of services and advertising.
Services: I give you an example. Have you ever been to Athens? The most popular attraction there is probably Acropolis, a hill with two temples on top of it, built after Xerxes (Khashayar Shah) burned the city. There is no way to reach the top of the hill other than by foot. All around the narrow path there are cafes, souvenirs, and restaurants. Prices, as you can imagine, are higher than usual, but almost everybody at some point buys something, or at least buys a drink to escape from Athens' unbearable heat.
Now, shift to the east: At Persepolis, there is only one small hotel, and nothing else. No shops, no restaurants no souvenir stands.
Advertising: We need to advertise our attractions, and not just through travel guides and infomertials, but also by producing documentaries and making web sites. We should even persuade studios to make movies based on ancient Persian myths and fables. The lives of Hercules and Moses have been turned into interesting movies, so why not Fereydoon and Zahak, Cyrus the Great, or Ardeshir I.
At the time, the celebrations marking 2,500 years of Persian empire were viewed as extravagant. But they did put Iran and its attractions on TV screens of every home in Europe and the U.S. The spectacle had a high price tag but it had a positive effect on the way others viewed Iran.
This article only serves the purpose of starting a debate on the important and yet much-neglected subject of tourism. I ask all to suggest practical solutions.