By Afshin Majlesi, Tehran Times
Last November, the Trump administration reinstated sanctions on Iran, mainly the ones that had been lifted under the 2015 nuclear deal, in order to batter Iran's economy, however, according to official data, they have so far failed to lessen foreign arrivals to the Islamic Republic.
Although the sanctions together with anti-Iran propaganda campaigns have decreased Western tourists but the country has managed to compensate and even improve by doing its best to attract more from neighboring states.
When it comes to outbound tourism, the effect of sanctions are seemingly more obvious as sharp rises in the value of foreign currencies against rial have pushed up the costs of traveling in the country.
A total of 1,759,749 Iranians traveled abroad in the first quarter of the current Iranian calendar year (March 21-June 21), indicating a 6.5% decrease compared with 1,882,414 outbound tourists in the same period last year, financialtribune.com reported in an article released on Monday.
"Nearly 7.8 million foreign nationals visited Iran over the past year that shows a 52.5 percent increase year on year. The country hosted 5.1 million travelers in 1396 (March 2017-18)," deputy tourism chief Vali Teymouri said in April.
"One of the shortcomings in Iran's tourism industry is the government's issuance of work permits to travel agencies without taking into consideration the number of inbound and outbound tourists. Less than 5% of travel agencies in Iran are active in organizing inbound tours, whereas 95% of them have focused on outbound tourism," Hormatollah Rafiei, the head of Travel Agents Guild Association, said.
To tackle such harms, the association has decided to set up a committee tasked with curtailing the number of travel agencies' closure by channeling them toward conducting more inbound tours.
"In two months, between 30 and 50 agencies are going to direct their activities toward attracting tourists from 10 countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Georgia, Armenia and China," Rafiei added.
Regarding to the downfall of potential Western visitors, Skift Inc., a New York City headquartered media company that provides news, research, and marketing services for the travel industry, said in July article that "Despite setbacks, [international] tour operators are optimistic about long-term growth in tourism to Iran, which in recent years has stepped up efforts to increase international visitation and has the stated goal of attracting 20 million annual visitors by 2025.
While the U.S. State Department has long issued strong advisories against traveling to Iran and despite tensions between the two countries, tour operators who spoke with Skift strongly disagree, maintaining that Iran has proven to be a safe and remarkably hospitable place for travelers, including Americans.
"It is a country that is often portrayed as unwelcoming, but the reality is quite the opposite," said Jenny Gray, the global product and operations manager of the Australia-based Intrepid Travel.
"Iranians are warm, friendly and eager to show off their country to foreigners. The feedback from our travelers is a testament to this."
"Once they [Iranian authorities] have been approved for entry [issuing visas], people are welcomed warmly-we've never encountered a problem or even a cold shoulder," said Robin Pollak, the president of Journeys International, which is offering Iran tours since 2015.
"People in Iran are very curious about visitors from a culture that is off-limits to them. They understand that American visitors do not reflect the way America is portrayed to them by their government," she added.
To compensate the fall, Iran has turned to ease traveling for its target markets which are people from Iraq, China, Republic of Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Pakistan, and several other countries who arrive in Iran for medical, pilgrimage and cultural heritage purposes.
Some two million Iraqi nationals visited Iran during the first seven months of the past Iranian calendar year (ended on March 20), constituting Iran's largest source of inbound passengers.
Mousa Tabatabai, assistant to Iran's ambassador to Baghdad, told Al-Monitor in early July, "The number of Iraqis arriving in Iran for religious tourism and treatment is growing bigger on a yearly basis. This is added to those who travel to Iran to see their relatives. The visas are issued depending on the demand."
"There are 2-3 million Iraqis arriving in Iran every year. Such a figure will more likely increase as the visas have become free of charge between the two countries," Tabatabai explained.
Iran also eyes to have a bigger share of Chinese tourism, as it, in a unilateral measure, recently approved to waive the visa requirement for the Chinese passport holders.
To encourage and reassure sightseers, the Iranian government has decided not to stamp the passports of foreign tourists to help them skip the U.S. travel ban.
"President Hassan Rouhani assigned the airport police not to stamp passports of foreign tourists. Taking into consideration the fact that America is practicing the economic terrorism plans, and people who travel to Iran may feel a bit afraid that they may be pressured by America," Government spokesman Ali Rabiei said earlier this month. He added that this can invite more tourists to Iran.
The World Travel & Tourism Council's latest report indicates that Iraq was the main source of tourism for Iran in 2018, as Iraqis constituted 24% of all inbound visitors. Other major sources were Azerbaijan (17%), Turkey (8%), Pakistan (4%) and Bahrain (2%). The remaining 46% came from the rest of the world.
WTTC's review of tourism spending in Iran in 2018 shows 93% of visitors spent for leisure purposes while only 7% spent on business purposes. The council ranked Iran 20th from among 185 countries in its 2017 power ranking, which evaluates countries in terms of absolute size growth measured in U.S. dollars in the field of travel and tourism.
The 2019 Travel Risk Map, which shows the risk level around the world, puts Iran among countries with "insignificant risk", a category where the UK, Denmark, Switzerland, Norway, and Finland are placed in.
The country boasts hundreds of historical sites such as bazaars, museums, mosques, bridges, bathhouses, madrasas, mausoleums, churches, towers, and mansions, of which 22 being inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Currently, Iran's constant efforts to recover the value of Iranian rial against the U.S. dollar have paid off. The national currency is strengthened about eight percent in the open market over the past month to 125,450 per dollar, traders in Tehran, according to prices compiled by Bloomberg from foreign-exchange websites.
Travel associates see better prospects for tourism sector of the country as policies for shielding the currency against the U.S. sanctions are taking effect.
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