On Kish, an island in the Persian Gulf just off Iran’s mainland that is a favorite domestic destination of Iranians, developers have been waiting for years for an administration that is serious about tapping the country’s tourism potential.
The island is home to dozens of high-end construction projects, including hotels and shopping malls, and already attracts more than a million visitors each year. As at other Iranian tourist destinations, however, visitors are overwhelmingly Iranian.
“We have to prepare the infrastructure and plan for an increase of tourists. It will take at least a decade for us to become an international destination,” said Mahan Modaven, a marketing consultant for the Kish branch of Iran’s Tourism Ministry.
In accounting for the country’s relatively low number of visitors, Rouhani blames sanctions, specifically those that have made it difficult, if not impossible, for tourists to use international credit and ATM cards. But tourism experts here think the problems run much deeper.
They say authorities’ general suspicion of foreigners and a lack of tolerance are the major obstacles preventing Iran from taking a larger slice of international tourism revenue, despite the country’s many environmental and historical attractions.
“We have all the potentials that we need to attract foreign tourists, but due to limitations, mostly cultural, like Islamic hijab, they do not come here. To attract them, we need to create a better political and social atmosphere,” said Ramezan Gholinejad, an organizer of the annual Kish Summer Festival.
Slovak tourists arrested
One field in which Iran hopes to gain ground is adventure travel, but news of the arrest more than a month ago of Slovak paragliders who entered Iran legally with tourist visas highlights just how far Iran might be from becoming a serious international destination.
The Slovaks, along with their local host, a well-known member of Iran’s paragliding community, were arrested after flying over a military installation days before Iran’s presidential election.
“They came to Iran as tourists but behaved inappropriately and had unconventional devices in their possession. They broke the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran and were arrested by the relevant authorities,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Araqchi told the Iranian Students’ News Agency on June 30.
Because of its high mountains, good wind conditions and low prices, Iran has become a favorite destination for European paragliders, and the site where the Slovaks were arrested was a front-runner to host an upcoming international paragliding competition, according to Mohammad Razeghi, the head of Iran’s air sports association.