The bazaar of Tajrish in northern Tehran. All photos provided by our Observers.
Tourism in Iran seems to be on the rise, thanks to a thawing of relations with the West. The Financial Times recently put it first on its list
of top travel destinations for the year, and tour operators are reporting that more and more travellers are expressing interest in visiting the Islamic Republic. Here’s a little guide for foreign visitors, concocted with the help of our Observers.
Iran’s government recently announced that it hopes to quintuple income from tourism, and to do this it plans on easing visa requirements. Soon, tourists from selected countries may no longer need to apply for a visa, and others may buy visas upon arrival.
Two of our Observers – Miyu, a student from Japan, and Manu, a student from Switzerland – separately travelled to Iran in the past year. We asked them what tourists should know before they go.
Tombs of ancient kings near Shiraz.
Miyu: I was travelling from Japan to Shanghai on a ferry. During the trip, I met an Iranian passenger who told me that Iran was a beautiful country. At first I thought Iran must be dangerous for foreigners to travel in, but he told me that this wasn’t at all the case, so I decided to go.
Manu: For Westerners like me, Iran is a “politically exotic” country, one we don’t know much about apart from the negative things we hear in the news. And yet I had heard good things from travellers who had gone there. So I didn’t know what to believe. The only way to find out was to go see for myself.
Miyu: You can’t reserve hotels from abroad. However, if you do a little research online, you can find lots of sites where travelers share tips on cheap hotels. [The average midrange hotel room price in Tehran is between 15 and 30 euros]. You can just note the name of the hotels and, upon arrival, get taxi drivers to take you there. Personally, I ended up couch-surfing during my entire stay – it’s really easy to find hosts in Iran.
Manu: I never booked hotels in advance; I just asked around and found cheap accommodations wherever I went.
Miyu: Visa and MasterCard don’t work in Iran, so I just took cash and kept it on me. People speak in Tomans rather than in Rials [10 Rials = 1 Toman], which can be a bit confusing at first, but I quickly got used to it.
Manu: It’s possible to use travellers’ checks, but I found it easier to carry all my money in 100 dollar US bills. [These can be exchanged for Rials at banks or private exchange shops]. It was surprisingly cheap for me to travel in Iran, due to inflation.
Women praying in a shrine.
Miyu: Many people speak good English in Iran, so I had no problems communicating. I also learned a bit of Persian so I tried to use that whenever I could. People are extremely friendly and hospitable towards foreigners.
Manu: A friend I met there taught me the concept of “taruf”. One should be aware of it when travelling in Iran. Basically, it means that some people will be so polite as to make offers that you, also being polite, should turn down. For example, in a restaurant, an owner might tell you that the meal is free, but you should insist and pay. Or if someone invites you to their house, politely decline until they repeat their invitation several times; if they keep insisting, then you’ll know it is a real invitation that you can accept!
As my friend told me: ‘Whatever the government wants us to do, we don’t do. And what they don’t want, we want to do!’ In Tehran, even if it is difficult, people are fighting for more civil liberties: women move their headscarves back more and more, and everyone watches Western TV thanks to their [illegal] satellite dishes
Iran really has everything that tourists are looking for. The natural landscape is amazing. I climbed Mount Damavand
, and that is now the best memory of my life. The food was the best I had tasted in the Middle East. Now, I even go to Iranian restaurants here in Japan. The underground world was also quite fascinating – I saw people drinking alcohol [which is prohibited], dancing at gay parties… There’s a whole world that’s hidden beneath the surface. It was also interesting to see historical and religious spots like the Imam Reza shrine
in Mashhad [which is one of the largest mosques in the world].
Manu: I really enjoyed taking the train from Ankara (in Turkey) to Tehran; you get to see very different parts of the country, and meet diverse types of people. For example, I spent time in the Azerbaijan region of Iran, where Azeris [one of the country’s many minorities] speak Turkish. People there are much poorer than in Tehran. Many of them told me that they want autonomy for their region, but that they are being ignored.
Watch out for...
Manu: Some moto-taxis asked for too much money, and I got some socks stolen from the laundry… so really, I didn’t run into too many problems!
Miyu: I would say that for women tourists, it can be a bit dangerous to be alone. Some men tried to touch me on the street. But apart from this, I have to say I really liked Iran and would go back.
Last words of advice?
I would advise visitors to Iran to study up on the country’s ancient history beforehand – it’s necessary to do this to understand Iran. I really regretted that I didn’t know anything about Cyrus the Great
[the founder of Zoroastrianism]. Also, some tourists don’t like going during the month of Ramadan [during which most Muslims fast during the day], but personally I quite enjoyed it – I really liked the Ramadan sweets!
Manu: Take your time! Try to go for at least two weeks, and travel spontaneously; there is so much to see.