Iran’s tourism industry taking off as various international mass media is currently ranking it in the top 10 must-see destinations in the world and the government has set ambitious targets of welcoming 20 million visitors and $30 billion in revenue by 2025, figures similar to Thailand. Masoud Soltanifar, Vice President and Head of Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization, reveals more about Iran’s flourishing tourism sector.
With the JCPOA completed and sanctions lifted, the international community has never been as interested in Iran’s economy as today, despite growing regional tensions, IS terror and sliding oil prices. How have these events impacted the tourism sector in the Middle East?
Well, due to roughly five or six years or more of illegal and unfair sanctions imposed on our country, we have lost some economical opportunities. The determination of President Rouhani’s administration was that by considering mutual and national interests of the country, the sanctions will be lifted and our nuclear right recognized. We believe during the negotiations that lasted for about 30 months between Iran and the 5+1 countries, we achieved two important goals: firstly, we safeguarded our nuclear rights; the second goal was lifting the sanctions. Therefore Iran has new conditions. Iran has a population of 80 million. Iran stands at the common point between three continents, Asia, Europe and Africa. And it can have lots of economical opportunities for Western and European companies. In addition, we are located in an unsafe region but fortunately we have security. During the past two years the average development of the tourism industry was 4.6%, but now it reaches 12%, which means three times more than the international development in this section. These figures show that Iran is safe, and rich in culture, heritage, religion and tourist attraction places. Tourists use different means of transportation such as air, land, sea and railroad to travel to Iran. In the past two years we have activated transferring tourists by railroads. Many trains have come from Europe to Iran.
With these factors that I mentioned (security, culture, heritage, religion, and tourist attraction places) it has been announced that Iran is the most important tourism destination in 2016 by different international mass media and organizations. National Geographic, for example, described Iran as the first tourism destination. And some other media announced Iran as the fifth or 10th best tourism destination, as there is prosperity in the tourism industry and it will continue; in other sections we will see the presence of foreign investors.
The presence of tens of Western political and economical authorities since July 2015 indicates that our conditions have changed and economy has improved. The government is trying to reduce inflation. The government has been adopting different policies to pave the way for investment. We predict a good future although the oil price reduction has adversely affected our development plan.
Iran’s ambition is to reach 20 million visitors and $30 billion in revenue by 2025, figures similar to Thailand. What challenges do you expect in order to reach these targets and how do you plan to overcome them?
As you mentioned we have some plans like visa facilitation development, electronic visa issuance by the end of 2016. We are negotiating to abolish visas with more countries to facilitate the transferring of tourists between Iran and other countries. With cheap bank credits, supporting local private sector and foreign private section we will increase the number of our hotels. By some exemptions like building duty waivers we will facilitate the foreign investment section.
We have a comprehensive plan in the field of tourism improvement and hospitality services. Plans such as increasing the level of staff training, expansion of tourist attraction information offices in different countries, improvement in air transportation network through new contracts with Airbus and Boeing, improvement in airport network with building new terminals and improvement in road and railway networks and much more.
In what areas of the tourism sector are international cooperation and investments particularly welcome?
We prepared a condition in which under the foreign investment law, different Western investors can easily come and invest. We prepared an office to facilitate bureaucracy difficulties for investors. If needed our hotel building groups will join and cooperate with these investors to build new hotels and tourism installations.
And also in some cities the companies that want to build hotels will be exempted from the tax. There will soon be a great conference on foreign investment and tens of foreign companies especially in building new hotels will be invited. In that conference we will introduce our investment opportunities and facilities. We hope to sign a contract between Iranian private sections and Western countries.
Iran has opened multiple information offices all over the world to represent its touristic and business interests in countries such as Spain, Singapore, Switzerland, China, and many others. What strategy is Iran following and which countries have you identified to increase touristic visits and revenue?
Of all 196 independent countries in the world according to cultural, tourism, economical and religious relations, we have chosen 40. Of these 40 countries according to the order of priority we have three groups: 16 countries first priority, 14 countries second priority, and 10 countries third priority. 15 out of 40 are our neighboring countries. Some of them are European countries, which are interested in Iranian historical and cultural antiquities. Some Muslim countries, which are not our neighbors, are interested in religious places. The number of tourists from North and Southeastern Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, China, Thailand, and Malaysia has increased and we have a long-term plan for them. All in all, until the end of 2016, we will set up 25 tourist attraction information offices in these countries and we will sign partnership documents with some of them. Some tourism officials and ministers of these countries have traveled to Iran and I’ve also been to those countries. We hope to reach all our goals in 2025.
Countries like France, Great Britain, Belgium, Thailand and India all have national icons like respectively the Eiffel Tower, HM The Queen of England, the Atomium, the elephant, the Taj Mahal, etc. As the face and voice of Iran’s tourism sector, how would you best describe Iran?
Our main policy is cultural, historical and Halal tourism. They are three words. I mean developing cultural-historical, religious and natural tourism. The fourth word is health tourism. Iran has good capacity in health tourism because we have capable specialists in our country. Because of the high quality and low prices (one-third to one-fifth in comparison with European countries) health tourists for open heart surgery, organ transplants, incurable diseases, cosmetic surgery and infertility surgery are increasing in Iran. In these four fields that I mentioned and with building infrastructure we hope to achieve our goals in 10 years.
Also, I would like to mention that Iran has such a diverse climate in our country that in each season people can go skiing in one area and at the same day in another part of our country people can go swimming. The distance between these places that I mentioned is about 100km. Tourists are very interested in this diversity. On the other hand we have the hottest place on earth in our country. It is a place called Gandom Beryanak (the name of a place in the central desert of Iran). The temperature there is about 67°C. The warmest mineral hot water spring is in Meshkin Shahr (the name of a city in western part of Iran). The water temperature is 84°C. The tallest brick dome and the highest sand dune are also in Iran.