Iran hopes its new moderate image will help tourism
Tehran (Reuters) - Iran hopes its improving image abroad will help lift
its depressed tourism industry, but many fear Islamic social restrictions
could keep foreigners away. "The bitter truth is that our negative
image, created by negative propaganda, has been a fatal poison for our
tourism industry since the revolution," says Iran's chief tourism
official Mohammad Moezzeddin.
"We want to improve this image and President (Mohammad) Khatami's
open-door and detente policy is the main key to this goal," he told
journalists this week. Iran's once-vibrant tourism industry all but died
after the 1979 revolution as the ruling Shi'ite Moslem clergy tried to
construct a pure Islamic state.
Intense anti-West feelings and the bloody 1980s war against Iraq scared
away many foreigners. Some of the best relics of pagan and Islamic tradition
in the historic cities of Shiraz and Isfahan were left as neglected ruins.
Tourism collapsed and the new rulers, wary of the cultural drawbacks
of the industry, ignored it for almost a decade. The idea to revive tourism
resurfaced after the war, when Iran needed hard cash to rebuild, and it
is still seen as an alternative source of foreign currency to oil exports.
But tourism in Iran has never got back on its feet, with progress hampered
by religious concerns and Iran's image abroad. A ban on alcohol and some
entertainment, segregated beaches and a mandatory dress code for women
are among religious restrictions that remain in force.
Khatami's limited social liberalisation and foreign policy overtures
have been of some help to the tourist industry. More people are travelling
to Iran, but visitors are largely limited to Moslems and small groups of
ageing Westerners, usually on tours.
Officials say about 1.7 million tourists visit Iran a year, spending
up to $800 million. Iran hopes the number of foreign visitors will more
than double in five years' time. In a country where vital economic interests
often clash with deep-seated moral values, tourism officials are struggling
to highlight Iran's natural and historical advantages against religious
controls in hopes of enticing tourists.
Moezzeddin said Iran preferred "cultural tourism", where the
country's historical and religious heritage are promoted as opposed to
the more "morally dubious" attractions of mainstream tourism.
"A growing number of young people who travel to Iran from European
countries are attracted to our cultural roots, not casinos, discotheques
and beaches," he said. He said Iran's religious lifestyle was far
from repressive and could even appeal to Westerners as exotic.
"Many Westerners are surprised to see women working as doctors,
engineers and politicians, even (covered) in hejab," the mandatory
all-encompassing outfit for women, he said. But many Iranians doubt that
cultural offerings are enough to build a robust tourist industry. "We
have said this for years and nothing has come out of it. Cultured tourists
are not always the ones who have money," said one industry insider.
Another drawback, critics say, is Iran's tottering tourism infrastructure.
No major hotels have been built in Tehran or other major cities in two
decades. The existing ones, though refurbished, are ill-equipped and poorly
To improve accommodation, the government and other public bodies are
selling off hotels seized after the revolution.
But with the lack of a clear tourism policy, many private investors
avoid making long-term investments. Efforts to draw foreign investment
have yet to produce results. Moezzeddin blamed "ambiguous" regulations
for the slow progress, but said an amendment to laws on foreign investment,
currently under review, could greatly help.
Iran is generally a safe place for foreign tourists, but old suspicions
and hostilities die hard. There have been scattered acts of violence against
Western tourists, some of whom were suspected of being spies.
Last year religious hardliners harassed foreign tourists who had travelled
to Isfahan to view a solar eclipse. The attackers accused the visitors
of not respecting Islamic codes of dress and conduct.
Tourism officials have privately sought fatwas, or religious decrees,
to try to create a more inviting climate for foreign tourists and spurn
hardline rage against tourists. Nothing concrete has come out of these
meetings, but some religious elders have openly backed efforts to revive
"We ought to remove negative impressions in society about foreign
tourists. We must do away with a mentality that sees tourists as spies
or lechers," said Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi.
At present, Iran is happy enough to draw tourists from Moslem countries,
whose nationals are seen to be more at ease with the Islamic republic's
social mores. "We are an Islamic country and we have to develop tourism
in a way that is free of negative (liberal) drawbacks," Moezzeddin
Iran will host an Islamic tourism conference in early October and has
already waived or eased visa regulations with some Moslem states, including