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Iran woos Chinese, other tourists as Westerners stay away

TEHRAN (AFP): Western tourists, who flocked to Iran just a few years ago, are being advised by their governments to stay away, forcing the Islamic republic’s struggling tourism industry to look elsewhere.

Hoping for better days, tourism professionals are wooing visitors from countries like China and Russia which maintain good ties with Iran.

Westerners have long been attracted to Iran’s many ancient and Islamic sites, its mountain scenery and its millennia-old culture.

European visitors began to return to Iran in 2015, when it emerged from decades of isolation after signing a landmark nuclear deal with major powers led by the United States.

In 2019, tourist arrivals hit eight million, as holidaymakers thronged sites such as Isfahan, Persepolis and Shiraz, the jewels of ancient Persia.

The rapid growth of the industry raised hopes that arrivals could reach 20 million a year by 2025, but they were quickly dashed by a series of setbacks.

“The backsliding started after the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018” and began reimposing crippling economic sanctions, said Farzaneh Mohammadi of state-owned Iran Railways.

In 2019, anti-government demonstrations swept the country. The following year, Iranian air defences downed a Ukrainian airliner shortly after takeoff from Tehran after mistaking it for a US cruise missile, dealing a heavy blow to confidence.

“Efforts were then launched to restore the situation, but recent events have dealt a fatal blow to tourism,” Mohammadi said.

He was referring to the wave of protests that spread across the country after the death in custody last September of Mahsa Amini, 22, an Iranian Kurd arrested for an alleged breach of Iran’s dress code for women.

– ‘Iranophobia’ –

Coverage in foreign media of the demonstrations — which Iranian authorities have generally labelled “riots” — helped “create an atmosphere of Iranophobia”, deputy tourism minister Maryam Jalali told AFP.

“When the foreign media keep repeating that there is unrest in the country, it discourages travellers,” said Amir-Hossein Rahimi, chairman of top private tour operator Alaedin Travel.

Rahimi hopes discussions to revive the 2015 nuclear deal can be relaunched soon, which would help create a more “favourable environment”.

In the biggest blow to tourism, several European governments have issued travel advisories warning their nationals to stay away from Iran for fear of arrest during the government’s crackdown on the protests.

“We strongly discourage any travel to Iran, given the high risk of arbitrary detention by the authorities of that country,” France has warned.

Six French nationals, some of whom were tourists, are in custody in Iran.

In its warning, Germany said: “There is a real risk of being arbitrarily arrested and sentenced to long prison terms in Iran.”

Mohammadi said the travel warnings were a major blow. “We will probably not have Western tourists this spring,” the most popular season for visiting Iran, he said.

– Pandemic blow –

The head of Iran’s hotel association, Jamshid Hamzehzadeh, said hotel occupancy rates were now below 20 percent and that two-thirds of establishments have had to lay off staff.

The loss of wealthy Western tourists has been a particular problem for sellers of carpets and other handicrafts at the major sites.

The coronavirus pandemic has also affected the industry, experts said.

“Nearly 80 percent of tour guides have lost their jobs since the pandemic,” said Davoud Dehghani, president of a local association with around 200 members in the historic desert city of Yazd.

“When Yazd was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017, the number of tourists boomed by more than 500 percent,” Dehghani said, recalling happier days.

In an effort to revive the industry, Iran is trying to attract visitors from countries such as Iraq and Lebanon, “who share a common religion and culture”, Jalali said.

She was referring to Shiite pilgrims from around the world who visit the Iranian shrine cities of Mashhad and Qom.

Iran also wants to develop medical tourism by exploiting its “efficient” health infrastructure, lower prices and expertise in cosmetic surgery.

Until then, the tourism industry is being kept afloat thanks to “a small number of foreign visitors from countries like Russia, China and Turkey” that have maintained good relations with the Islamic republic, Dehghani said.