MYTH vs. FACT: Iran Tourism

By Gabriella Butler, Research Associate

The stigma that Iran is a dangerous place where Western tourists – and particularly Americans – are neither welcomed, nor permitted to visit the country, could not be farther from the truth.

Where does this stigma come from?  For one thing, when Americans picture Iran, they tend to envision scenes from the 1979 hostage crisis or the stereotypical cries of “Death to America” that they have seen in the U.S. media.  However, these perceptions do not reflect the reality on the ground. According to Jahandad Memarian of the tour operator, Apadana Journey:

"Unfortunately, Iran has been depicted in a negative light for most Westerners due to political tensions. As a result, many travelers naturally express concerns.  However, upon their return the vast majority of those visitors cannot find enough words to express how warm Iranians are, and how secure they felt in a region that is often associated with instability.  Past travelers have unequivocally praised Iran for its hospitality, security and all around feeling of being welcomed."

The emergence of the terrorist organization ISIS, in the Middle East, has given Westerners another – false -  reason for pause when considering travel to Iran.  As images of ISIS decapitations, forced female slavery and other atrocities flood Western media, many Americans erroneously assume there must be an ISIS presence in the country.  This is incorrect.  ISIS, which practices a warped version of Sunni Islam, does not operate in Iran, a Shia nation. Rather, Iran and ISIS have been actively opposed to one another.  And, while ISIS vows to carry out terrorist attacks in Iran, such incidents in Iran are extremely rare, with ISIS having successfully carried out just one major attack in the country in June of 2017.  Janet Moore of the tour operator Distant Horizons describes how her company allays traveler concerns:

"Iran is very, very safe and we to try to convey that as clearly as possible. I find that having a possible traveler talk to someone who has recently returned from Iran to be a very effective way to address concerns about safety and we put people in touch with previous travelers a great deal. What better way to learn about a country than from someone who has recently returned.

We point to facts –There have not been acts of terrorism in Iran against tourists unlike many other countries in the world – from Istanbul  (Turkey) to Paris (France) and Orlando (USA) - the odds of American tourists being harmed, being part of a terrorist act or being  kidnapped are close to zero."

Another common fallacy is the assumption that Westerners (and Americans in particular) are not permitted to enter the country.  This misperception stems from Americans’ familiarity with the travel ban to Cuba.  Many people assume that a similar travel ban must have been in effect for Iran after the 1979 revolution, as a part of the extensive U.S. sanctions regime imposed on the country.  However, there has never been a U.S. travel ban on visiting Iran.

The combination of all these myths -- that there is a travel ban to Iran, that Iran is dangerous and that the Iranian people are unwelcoming to Westerners -- leads to a further misconception:  that Iran must be an isolated country devoid of visitors.  In fact, its tourism industry is booming.  According to Iranian officials, over 5 million tourists entered Iran in 2015, compared to 2.2 million in 2009.  After implementation of the JCPOA and lifting of international sanctions, tourism got an especially strong boost.  More flights than ever have been entering Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, with 516 landing there in the first week of October 2016 compared to 316 from the first week of May 2015, before the nuclear deal was signed.  Looking to the future, President Rouhani has a plan for Western outreach to expand tourism to 20 million visitors by 2025.  

What is there to do in Iran?  Some Americans may imagine Iran to be nothing but desert landscape.  In fact, the Islamic Republic is four times the size of California, with an extremely diverse landscape, countless cultural offerings, and plenty to do for the active traveler.  Memarian of Apadana Journey notes:

"Luckily for us, Iran effectively sells itself. The country has numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  It also has diverse climate regions, so visitors can experience all four seasons in Iran at any time during the year.  And, of course, the food will keep you entranced throughout your whole trip."

The crown jewel of Iran’s 19 UNESCO World Heritage Sites is Persepolis, the most visited site in Iran.  The archaeological site is located not far from Shiraz, a former capital and home of Persian culture known for poetry and gardens. Persepolis was the former capital of the Achaemenid Empire and is home to an incredible array of artifacts and ruins from 1500 years ago.

The nation also has a rich architectural history, which is exhibited in its magnificent mosques, gardens, and palaces. Esfahan, the capital of Persia under the Safavid dynasty, flourished and is summed up in a 500-year-old Persian proverb, “Esfahan is half the world.” It’s no wonder then that Esfahan is the top tourist city in Iran, with its incredible mosques, bazaars, bridges, and Naqsh-e Jahan Square, one of the largest squares in the world. Tehran, the capital, is another popular destination, providing visitors a glimpse of daily life for urban Iranians. But for the more actively inclined, Iran boasts ski resorts, desert trekking, stretches of beach on the Caspian Sea and Indian Ocean, and mountain climbing. 

Interested in traveling to Iran?  Here are some things to note:

Getting there:  Many tour agencies offer private and group travel to Iran.  While most Americans feel more comfortable making their first visit to Iran as part of a group, Iran can also be discovered independently. The primary consideration for visitors traveling alone is that British and American citizens are required by the government of Iran to be accompanied by a guide during their visit, or have a friend or family member in Iran to take legal responsibility for them.

Travel to Iran is similar in many ways to visiting any other country, there are countless accommodation offerings, ranging from couchsurfing to luxury resorts. Intercity transportation is simple with plenty of taxis, buses, shared taxis, and a metro in Tehran and Mashhad. And the country is connected by a web of trains, buses, and shared taxis.

Visas:  Obtaining a visa prior to travel is required for citizens of the US, Canada, and the UK, along with a handful of countries. Most citizens of other nations can obtain a visa on arrival, but check your country’s foreign ministry for more information. For US citizens, the Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Pakistani Embassy can facilitate in the visa process. As a point of reference for American travelers, the Foreign Interests Section of the Embassy of Switzerland serves as the US protecting power within the nation.

Financial Transactions:  International credit and debit cards are not yet available for use within the country, though MasterCard and Visa are in talks to extend services to Iran. It is advised to bring enough cash in your travels, with dollars and pounds accepted along with rials. There are also places to exchange money and you can also obtain prepaid debit cards upon arrival.

Attire: Iranian law requires women to be dressed modestly in public at all times. This includes wearing a headscarf and loose fitting clothing that covers from neck to ankles. The gasht ershad, or the morality police, enforces this attire. Men are recommended to wear long pants, yet short sleeve shirts are permissible

Culture: As a conservative nation, there are a number of customs regulating behavior that should be noted for a smooth visit to Iran.  On public transportation, there are separate areas for men and women. Men and women should not embrace or shake hands in public. Alcohol is also illegal.

Dual-Citizens: Dual Iranian-American citizens have the greatest concern when traveling to Iran. Iran does not recognize dual-citizenship, considering all dual-nationals to be Iranians. As such, dual-citizens do not have access to the Embassy of Switzerland’s protecting power. 

Coming Home: Every person who travels to Iran becomes a mini-ambassador for the country. Moore of Distant Horizons explains: "When someone travels to Iran, we find that they cannot help but fall in love with the country and its wonderful people. They return with their eyes and their minds opened and they talk. They talk to their family, their neighbors, their friends and their hairdressers. They spread the word and eventually if enough people spread the word, then maybe a politician might listen and that politician might talk to other politicians. I don’t think tourism should be seen or become political – that is its beauty. Let it operate at the people level and let the people become the spokespeople."

For more information on travel to Iran:

●        Inn Iran Travel Guide

●        Lonely Planet Iran Guide

●        Rick Steves, travel writer, produced an hour-long TV special on Iran several years ago.

●       Benjamin Matinie, known as Tolt, a French filmmaker, made this short film on Iran in early 2016