What happened when a travel writer flew to Iran with no tourist visa or return flight

December 20, 2012

Shoppers walk through the Emam Zadeh Davod bazaar west of Tehran. (Atta Kenare -- AFP/Getty Images)

Australian travel writer Nate Robert is definitely not the first Western tourist to visit Iran. Some European travel companies still run regular group tours, and though tourism is definitely not what it once was for the country (an eight-year war with neighboring Iraq and a contentious nuclear program will do that), there's plenty to draw in the occasional Westerner. What makes Robert's trip noteworthy is what he didn't do: secure a visa before arriving, or even book a return flight.

To be fair, this isn't actually quite as crazy as it might sound. Australia is one of several countries whose citizens can legally buy a tourist visa on arrival on Iran. (Not on that list: the United States.) Still, maybe Iran is one of those places where it's better to be over-prepared on paperwork than to do the minimum, particularly if you're a Westerner visiting at a time of high geopolitical tension.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that Robert hit some speedbumps on his way to Iran, via Malaysia. He wrote on his travel blog, "Being allowed to board the flight in Kuala Lumpur, was a struggle. A one way ticket into Iran, with no pre-arranged tourist Visa, no 'Letter of invitation,' no evidence of onwards travel – this was not the done thing. Some say this is pure stupidity. I call it cutting edge 21st century tourism."

He also jokes that he did "scant research" and observed "little regard for convention" in his spontaneous trip.

The flight into Tehran sounds like it was an experience in itself; Robert calls it "the most sociable flight of my life."

the AirAsia flight was like being back in High School, together with all your friends headed off to camp. It was noisy, rambunctious, and rules were being broken. At one point, moments after a Jersey Shore look-a-like passenger was scolded for sneakily helping himself to a second dinner from the cart, a message came over the speakers, stating that someone had been smoking in the toilet and the alarm had been triggered. I was standing up chatting to my new friend Amir, and lots of laughter ensued as three or four flight attendants tried in vain to get suspect to hand over his passport.

People broke out in song as this was happening. “It’s kind of like the Iran national anthem” Amir told me. “Kind of”. A few aisles behind, a group argument broke out between passengers. Something about a wife. It got heated, and a couple of ladies in the row behind me moved away. In vain, the “seatbelts on” light was switched on, and duly ignored by the many groups congregating throughout the plane. A flight attendant walked past, throwing her hands in the air, saying “oh, I give up, just do what you want”.

Robert describes, upon landing in Iran, nervously explaining his "intentions in Iran" and answering probing questions about his work in Australia to a man with "no badge, no uniform, perfect English." Eventually, after providing a satisfactory answer about his plans for leaving Iran after several days (tourists visas are typically limited to some weeks), the Iranian official let him in.

What's interesting about Robert's mini-adventure of entering Iran with little documentation is, in a way, not how hard it was but how easy. He was not exactly waved right in, but he had an easier time than most would because, whether he knew it or not when he set out for Tehran, the Iranian government allows Australians to pick up a visa on arrival. That's a benefit Australians, like many Westerners, are afforded in much of the world. But it's not something Iranians can enjoy in the West.

Most countries maintain a list of other countries whose citizens are allowed to pick up a tourist visa on arrival, the way Robert did in Iran. Here's Australia's list and here's the United States's. Like Iran, they include most of the world's rich, developed countries, particularly from Europe. These visitors, the thinking goes, are more likely to spend tourist dollars and less likely to try to remain in the country illegally. So what happens if you show up in a country like the United States or Australia but you don't have a visa and your country is not the pre-approved lists? It varies, but it would not be uncommon to be immediately deported, or placed in immigration detention if that wasn't an option.

These visa-on-arrival lists do not typically include Iran or most other middle- or low-income countries, meaning that Iranians can have a significantly tougher time traveling to Western countries than do Westerners to Iran. That's probably unsurprising to a lot a people, but it's an interesting reminder that, although we think of places like Iran as formidable and unfriendly to Westerners, when it comes to the security bureaucracy of international travel, Western countries can actually be far more daunting.

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