With oil prices falling, Iran is eyeing a new industry in hopes of boosting its economy: tourism. Seizing upon the considerable advantages of sanctions relief and improved bilateral ties, Tehran is trying to paint itself as a more inviting and attractive travel destination – and not, say, a place where a Westerner is liable to be imprisoned indefinitely on trumped-up espionage charges.
It focuses on incoming tourism, from Western countries as well as from other Muslim states. To cite just one example, Iran reportedly announced recently that it would begin to issue electronic visas for foreign tourists as early as the end of 2016, making it that much easier for travelers to put Iran on their itinerary.
Are Tehran’s efforts working? Is its ambition paying off? The media may give us some indication. Take The Guardian, which recently published a travelogue (credited to Gus Serendip) showing how “access to social media” (those one can access in Iran, that is) can expose travelers to the Iranian private sphere – “the everyday lives of modern Iranians” (especially millennials) – rather than the public version historical sites have to offer. As Serendip describes clandestine booze-fests, weed-laden political debates, and inspirational Facebook groups, it becomes evident that the version of Iran to which he was exposed was perhaps more intimate, more “grassroots,” but limited in its own way, too. Who in Iran attends these “defiant, exciting” parties? Who has access to these social media platforms? Who is able to so openly express political dissent? And as for Western travelers themselves – are they all able to travel so safely and freely in Iran, including women and dual Iranian citizens?
Serendip’s account joins the spate of recent articles written about Iran from an independent backpacker’s point of view, pointing to a new trend in coverage of tourism in Iran. We called it in December – “selling a ‘cool’ but misleading Iran to tourists”.
Ultimately, we surmise that from an official Iranian perspective, it doesn’t really matter if it’s historical sites or personal experiences which are being described in these accounts (even – gasp! – parties), as long as they get more tourists (and capital) into the country and that they refrain from criticism.