Iran’s tourism sector growing, but is it enough?
\r\nEndowed with ancient history and rich cultural\r\ntreasures, Iran is among the top 20 countries in terms of the highest number of\r\ntourism attractions. From the world-renowned 2,500-year-old ruins of Persepolis\r\nto the archaeological mounds in Susa and Meymand villages, Iran is home to 19\r\nUNESCO-designated World Heritage sites; the\r\nlatter two were added to this list a year ago.
\r\nContrary to many of its neighbors in the Persian Gulf region, Iran enjoys a\r\nhighly diverse culture as it is home to many different ethnic and religious\r\ngroups. It is also among the countries that enjoy four genuine seasons, giving\r\nevery visitor the chance to choose from a wide range of activities and tastes.
Iran is considered to be generally safe to\r\nvisit, and another major advantage for the nation's tourism industry is that\r\nthe World Economic Forum found the country to be the world's cheapest tourism destination in 2015.
\r\nHowever, ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, pilgrims en route to holy\r\nShiite sites have constituted the lion’s share of foreign tourists. The war\r\nwith Iraq in the 1980s followed by years of political isolation over its\r\nnuclear program also contributed to major underinvestment in Iran’s tourism\r\nsector.
The Iranian tourism industry began to experience a rebirth after Hassan Rouhani was elected\r\npresident in July 2013. His administration has taken steps to fulfill its election promise to\r\nboost tourism. This may have been facilitated by the sudden fall of oil prices\r\nalong with Iran’s high unemployment rate, as these developments prompted the\r\nadministration to look for new sources of income. Rouhani’s moderate policies and efforts\r\nto improve relations with the West, which ultimately resulted in the historic\r\ndeal on Iran’s nuclear program in 2015, have all been fruitful for the tourism\r\nsector.
Figures released by the Iranian Cultural Heritage,\r\nHandicrafts and Tourism Organization (ICHTO) show that 4.8 million foreign\r\ntourists visited the country in 2013, almost 25% higher than the corresponding\r\nfigure for 2012. In 2014, Iran hosted more than 5 million foreign tourists,\r\nbringing in some $7.5 billion in revenues. Moreover, last year, official\r\nfigures put the number of incoming tourists at more than 5.2 million,\r\ngenerating over $8 billion.
“The implementation of the Joint Comprehensive\r\nPlan of Action, JCPOA, has paved ground for growth and development in the\r\ncountry’s tourism sector,” said Masoud\r\nSoltanifar, vice president and chairman of ICHTO, in a speech\r\nearlier this month. More recently, the head of the Trade Promotion Organization\r\nof Iran, Valiollah Afkhami-Rad, said the country has achieved\r\ntwo-thirds of its targeted $4 billion revenue from the tourism industry over\r\nthe past five months. “Incoming tourists have brought more than $2.8 billion of\r\nrevenues since the beginning of the current Iranian year (March 20).”
At present, there are about 1,100 hotels\r\nthroughout Iran. However, only 104 of them are listed as five-star and\r\nfour-star hotels. Aware of the importance of hotels in attracting foreign\r\ntravelers, the Iranian government has thus moved to establish exemption of income taxes for companies to accelerate\r\nhotel-building projects. “A revolution has taken place in Iran’s hotel-building\r\nunder the 11th [incumbent] government,” Soltanifar said, adding “35 four- and five-star hotels\r\nhave become operational in the past three years. 170 more such hotels will be\r\nbuilt over the next five years.” In this vein, the government has signed\r\ncontracts with several countries including Turkey, Germany, France and Spain to build dozens of four- and five-star\r\nhotels in a number of Iranian cities.
As part of its efforts to overhaul the tourism\r\nindustry, Rouhani’s administration has also extended the length of visas issued on arrival, from one month to three months. At\r\npresent, citizens of 190 countries can enter Iran with visas issued on arrival.\r\nOf note, this scheme does not apply to citizens of 11 countries — including the\r\nUnited States, the UK and Canada.
To attract more foreign tourists, Tehran has\r\nsigned tourist exchange agreements with several countries, including Russia.\r\nThe government is additionally pursuing plans to attract 5% of Chinese tourists who go\r\nabroad for vacations. Indeed, it has already opened tourism offices in Shanghai\r\nand Guangzhou.
Projects to develop international\r\nairports in major cities including Tehran, Isfahan and Mashhad\r\nas well as establishing direct flights to European cities via French, German and\r\nItalian airlines are also among the measures taken by the government. According\r\nto Iranian officials, these measures have resulted in a 12% increase in the number of incoming tourists over the\r\npast three years. As part of its 20-year vision, Iran is hoping to attract 20\r\nmillion tourists per year by 2025, generating an estimated $25 billion to $30\r\nbillion in revenues.
Yet despite these positive developments and\r\noptimistic outlook, the reality is that Iran is still far from a high ranking in attracting foreign tourists. Nasrollah Pezhmanfar, a member of the Iranian parliament’s\r\nCulture Committee, believes that the current growth of tourism is good — but\r\nnot enough, arguing that targets set within the framework of the 2025 Outlook\r\nPlan will not be achieved. Indeed, Iran’s share of global tourism income was just 0.5% in 2015, with officials saying the figure must\r\nincrease to 3% in coming years.
There are several hindrances to Iran’s ability\r\nto realize its ambition to become a global tourism hub. For instance,\r\nforeigners touring Iran face challenges when it comes to booking hotels or\r\npurchasing train and plane tickets within the country. Iran’s isolation from\r\ninternational banking systems is also forcing visitors to bring cash, as the\r\nuse of international credit cards is still not available in Iran.
Moreover, the mandatory observance of hijab for\r\nwomen and the ban on alcohol — including for non-Muslim travelers — as\r\nwell as the lack of English-speaking guides in smaller towns may deter some\r\nvisitors.
With the improvement of Iran’s international\r\nimage and the increase in the number of foreign tourists in recent years,\r\nexperts say Iran is well-positioned to finally boost its tourism sector after\r\nyears of stagnation. However, it will likely take some time to realize the\r\ncountry’s true potential; as some argue, more investment in infrastructure is\r\nimperative before it can even compete with its tourist-welcoming neighbors,\r\nsuch as Turkey.
- Published By : هادی نوبخت