What's going on? 400% increase in British tourists to Iran
For years, the administration of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad put off all but the most adventurous travelers.
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Iran is experiencing a surge in tourism from Britain, with bookings at travel agencies up by as much as 400 percent.
Even the Iranian law requiring women to cover up and the ban on alcohol have not discouraged British tourists.
For years, the administration of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad put off all but the most adventurous travelers. But the arrival of Hassan Rouhani as his successor last year appears to have made the Middle Eastern country seem friendlier.
Jonny Bealby, managing director of Wild Frontiers, which has been organizing trips to Iran for ten years, hopes to send up to 150 customers this year, compared with a few dozen in 2013.
Mr. Bealby said: “With the new man in charge and the easing of relations, a lot more people feel safe to go there.”
In the Ahmadinejad years, Bealby said his company would provide just one or two organized tours for up to 12 people at a time, and arrange ‘a handful’ of trips for individuals or couples.
“Things have changed completely this year,” he said. “In 2012, it was hard to sell Iran at all and in 2013 we had just two group tours running. This year we are running nine.
“We are also providing tailor-made trips for dozens more people. In total, we are approaching 150 bookings so far in 2014.”
Wild Frontiers’ group tours cost £2,795 per person for a fortnight or £1,995 for 10 days, taking in ancient fortresses, mosques, bazaars, royal gardens, and Iran’s National Museum in Tehran, which displays its crown jewels and peacock throne.
There are no direct flights from the UK to Iran so travelers have to change in either Istanbul or Dubai.
Bealby said: “Travel to Iran has never been a problem in the years we’ve been running tours. As long as people going there are sensible, we have partners in Iran who know what they are doing and our customers are well looked-after.”
Sarah Bareham, marketing executive at Brighton-based Responsible Travel, which also organizes tours of the country, said: “Since January we have had the same number of bookings that we had in the whole of 2013.”
Michael Pullman, marketing manager at Wild Frontiers, based in Barnes, south London, has just returned from one of the company’s tours to Iran and describes the country as ‘amazing’.
He said: “It was a really interesting place, full of history, amazing architecture and mosques.
“Probably the biggest surprise was how friendly and welcoming the people were - everywhere we went we were surrounded by people wanting to ask us questions about topics ranging from politics to the Premier League.
“The officials were very low-key and although they probably knew where we were, there wasn’t any visible presence monitoring our movements.”
But despite the friendly welcome, Pullman said women have to disguise their body shape and wear scarves and, while men are permitted Western clothing, shorts are not allowed.
Other down-sides include Western credit or debit cards not working in Iran, so tourists need to bring cash to exchange.
Wild Frontiers’ brochure describes ‘fascinating’ Iran as ‘one of the most misunderstood countries on earth’.
Other specialist travel agencies have also reported rising bookings for Iran in the last 12 months.
But UK government advice on trips to the Middle Eastern country remains cautious. A Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesman said: “We would advise people to keep up to date with our relevant travel advice on Iran.”