Financial Tribune- About 7.8 million tourists traveled to Iran in the last fiscal year (ended March 20, 2019) to register a 52.5% growth compared with the preceding year, the deputy head of Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handcrafts and Tourism Organization said.
“A majority of foreign travelers visiting Iran last year were from neighboring countries as well as European and American countries," Vali Teymouri was also quoted as saying by IRNA.
According to Ali Asghar Mounesan, the head of Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicraft and Tourism Organization, the lower cost of Iran travel packages was the key factor that made the country more attractive for foreigners.
In recent months, Iranian authorities have redoubled efforts to boost the tourism sector to increase foreign currency revenues and create jobs.
The decline in the national currency’s value last year has meant that travelling to and shopping in Iran is cheaper for foreign nationals.
"The development of tourism infrastructure, investments in the tourism sector, the issuance of electronic visa and visa waiver for target countries could be the main reasons for the growth in the number of foreign travelers," he said.
Potential to Replace Oil Revenues
Iran has 157 four- and five-star hotels and by the end of President Hassan Rouhani’s second term in 2021, the figure will increase to 210. “When the infrastructures are complete, income from tourism will replace oil revenues,” Mounesan tweeted recently.
“When this happens, we will have created jobs and insured ourselves against sanctions.”
The tweet by ICHHTO chief first implies that revenues from tourism can replace those of the oil sector; second, this can come about by increasing the number of hotels and expanding the infrastructure.
Experts and businesspeople active in the tourism sector believe that the former is not impossible. They are also of the opinion that this goal cannot be achieved by merely building more hotels and facilities.
Mohammad-Ali Ashraf Vaqefi, the deputy head of Iranian Tour Operators Association, said tourism has the capacity to replace oil revenues, provided the sector gets the attention it deserves.
“We have inadequate tourism infrastructure, including lodging centers. But, at present, Iran does not receive many tourists for this to cause a problem. Yet, if our inbound tourism figures were to increase, our current infrastructure won’t be able to meet the demand. This increase happened after the nuclear agreement and since there were not enough hotels and lodging centers, we were forced to cancel some of the tours,” he said.
Vaqefi believes other measures must be taken for income from tourism to replace oil revenues, adding that these measures are not ones that could be carried out by the private sector or public bodies in charge of tourism such as ICHHTO.
“Right now, what’s preventing foreigners from visiting Iran is the country’s negative image in the international arena. While Iran is one of the safest countries in the world, hostile propaganda discourages potential tourists from considering Iran as a destination,” he said.
Vaqefi believes this image has to be transformed and publicized before other steps.
Mostafa Shafiei Shakib a board member at ITOA, said the first step is to introduce Iran to the world the way it really is.
“When it comes to infrastructure, inadequate hotels do not pose the only problem. There are not enough restaurants or water closets. Transportation is not satisfactory either and there are not enough buses and minibuses for conducting tours. To top these, we have few expert tour guides,” he said.
Shakib said most of the tourists visiting Iran prefer to stay in three- and four-star hotels and consider five-star ones as too luxurious.
Among World's Safest Countries
According to the 2019 Travel Risk Map launched by global risk experts International SOS in collaboration with Control Risks, Iran is as safe as a majority of European countries when it comes to travel security.
The map shows the risk level in each country and territory based on the current threat posed to travelers by political violence (including terrorism, insurgency, politically motivated unrest and war), social unrest (including sectarian, communal and ethnic violence) and violent and petty crime.
Factors such as the robustness of transport infrastructure, the state of industrial relations, effectiveness of security and emergency services and the country’s susceptibility to natural disasters are also taken into consideration, the Independent reported late last year.
A low travel security risk means violent crime rates are low; racial, sectarian or political violence or civil unrest is uncommon; security and emergency services are effective; infrastructure is sound; and industrial action and transport disruption are infrequent.
The map lists five categories of risk: insignificant, low, medium, high and extreme.
Very few countries manage to make it into the “insignificant” bracket. In Europe, only Luxembourg, Denmark, Slovenia, Switzerland, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Greenland have been placed in this category.
A majority of European countries are deemed low risk, including Iran, the UK, Jordan, Oman, Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Uzbekistan. Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand are all low risk states, too.
According to International SOS, a low travel security risk means violent crime rates are low and racial, sectarian or political violence or civil unrest is uncommon.
“Security and emergency services are effective and infrastructure is sound. Industrial action and transport disruption are infrequent,” the company said in a blurb on its website in reference to "low risk" countries.
“Extreme” risk countries are almost exclusively in Africa and the Middle East, including Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Libya, South Sudan and Somalia.
Neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan are among more than 15 countries that have been labeled "extreme" in terms of security risk to travelers.
Significant Decline in Overseas Visitors
Mounesan noted that some 7 million Iranians travelled overseas last year, indicating a significant decline compared with the year before.
As many as 10 million Iranians had travelled to foreign countries in the fiscal 2017-18.
Although the drop in the value of national currency has helped attract more foreigners to the country, it has made many Iranian families rethink their plans for foreign trips.
The latest data released by Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism indicate that the number of Iranian tourists visiting Turkey, a popular tourist destinations, decreased considerably in 2018.
More than 1,894,100 Iranian travelers visited Turkey during the first 11 months of 2018, which marks an 18.17% decline compared with the corresponding period of last year when the number of Iranian visitors was 2,314,656.
Among all tourists who visited Turkey from January to November 2018, only 5.05% were Iranian.
The drop was more significant in November, as the number of Iranian travelers to Turkey decreased by 46.39% from 196,000 in last November to 105,000 this year.
In November 2018, only 5.35% of all travelers who came to visit Turkey were Iranian.
Georgia, another popular destination for Iranians, has also become less appealing, as 262,000 Iranians traveled there during the first 10 months of 2018.