Is Iran the next big travel destination?

Iran tourism
Gilan Gharb, Iran (Nima Hatami)

Everywhere I went on my first visit to Iran surprised me. Shiraz and Yazd, Kerman and Kashan confounded my expectations, and not just with their immense age and extraordinary beauty. Iran conjures the idea of ayatollahs and women in black and yet I saw no one praying in mosques and young women seemed to flaunt the veil injunction by draping headscarves off the back of high beehives. The towns and cities exuded a surprisingly fresh energy, as though in the process of remaking themselves. Nowhere impressed me more than Esfahan.”

That’s how Anthony Sattin begins his article “Going Off-Grid in Iran” for Conde Nast Traveller. It’s easy to see the appeal of such a forbidden place. The country has been a pariah of the West longer than many of our readers’ lifetimes. U.S. first imposed sanctions against the country in 1979 and then made them tougher in 1995. Israel doesn’t let its citizens travel to Iran unauthorized. George W. Bush labeled Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil,” as a state sponsor of terror. Today, the U.S. is engaged in a quasi-proxy war with Iran in Yemen and is on the brink of one in Syria. Meanwhile, Iran has a habit of locking up Americans for ridiculous charges on unimaginable sentences to use as political hostages.

Iran tourism

Going to Iran gives a traveler the same kind of street cred as visiting North Korea or a war zone like Iraq. It’s a place where Friday prayers become political rallies with impassioned chants of “death to America!” It’s a place where centrifuges whir away, enriching uranium for bombs, and being a nuclear physicist makes you a Mossad target.

But the truth is, as Sattin points out, Iran tourism isn’t about those political considerations that don’t really enter into your daily scene. Persians are open-minded, modern and smart. They want their economy to develop, and many of them saw the success of nuclear negotiations with the United States as a positive step. In fact, to read Sattin’s account, you almost forget where he is, and it becomes just another adventure.

“I ate kebabs, rice and yogurt and sipped zero-per-cent beer while stretched out shoeless on a raised bench in the Banqueting Hall, a traditional restaurant with a big window looking onto the dome of one of the grand mosques. I drank strong coffee in antique shops with some of the city’s smart young crowd, and managed to break my rule about not buying a carpet before I had even reached the bazaar.”