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22 Dec, 2008

17 Americans Attend First Tour Operators Convention in Iran

TEHRAN – Seventeen American tour operators and media were amongst a group of 120 tour operators and travel media from 48 countries who attended the first international tour operators convention organised by the Iranian tourism industry late last month.

They found a country which is completely different from that which they read about in the newspapers. Mr Esfandyar Mashayi, Vice President of Iran and Head of the Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization, said the convention was designed to provide the “best opportunity for cooperation, coordination and familiarity with the truths and facts on Iran of today and yesterday.”

The operators came from many parts of Europe, North America and Japan. They included traditional markets like the UK, France and Germany, as well as potential new markets like Russia, South Africa, Georgia and Armenia. In Asia, tour operators were invited from India, Malaysia, Indonesia, China and Hong Kong. This columnist was the only travel industry journalist from ASEAN invited on the trip.

The American travel industry contingent hailed the fact that throughout the trip, they were all treated with courtesy and hospitality. Although some of them chose to bear name-tags identifying themselves as citizens of other nationalities, others had no problem being seen as Americans.

The convention was intended to help Iran show the world the reality of life in the country in spite of the economic sanctions and enhance the process of diversifying its income sources for a population of 66 million people.

The event was held in the Tehran convention centre originally built for the Organisation of Islamic Conference summit in 1997. After a day of speeches outlining tourism development policies and future plans, the visitors were taken on a whirlwind tour of Kish Island, Shiraz and Isfahan.

Visas on arrivals were arranged for those who had come at short notice, as many of them had. Special charters were used for internal flights. Guests saw a country that was pretty much operating as normal. In spite of fuel rationing, traffic in Tehran was as chaotic as ever.

The trip encountered a number of logistical glitches were encountered, mainly involving sudden, unexplained changes in programmes and schedules. In a debriefing session later, the visitors offered the hosts tips and recommendations on ways to improve their planning and organisation procedures.

The impact of sanctions is clearly visible, both for better and worse. There are no Starbucks, Marriotts, McDonalds or any of the otherwise ubiquitous “brand” signage. On the other hand, Internet availability is restricted and Thai mobile phones may encounter network problems.

International credit cards are not accepted anywhere although efforts are underway to bypass this through some kind of local arrangement, perhaps a topping up scheme, with a local bank. Credit cards and ATM machines for local citizens are freely available.

According Dr. Harsh Varma, Director, Department of Development Assistance, UN World Tourism Organisation. “Iranian tourism has recorded an impressive growth over the last few years culminating in 2.1 million international arrivals in 2007. All trends clearly indicate that this growth will continue in the coming years as well.”

He added, “The heritage of the ancient Persian Empire and the highly influential role which Iran played in the development of the ancient Silk Road lends the country with a compelling attractiveness. Iran is also advantageously located on the borders of Asia and the Middle East, and a short-haul distance from major source European source markets.”

Iran is becoming popular with globe-trotters who have completed the traditional been-there, done-that circuit and want to see something new.

Asked what he felt to be the biggest problem related to promoting tourism to Iran, Akbar Ghamkhar, chairman of the Tehran Tour and Travel Agencies Association said, “The propaganda.”

Inspite of the vilification of the country in the international media, he said, “98% of the visitors tell us that what they see and experience in the country has no bearing on reality. In fact, he said, they find the country to be safer than their own countries back home.”

Mr Shirish Trivedi of Carlson Wagonlits Travel in the US said he lived in Shiraz as an engineer for Westinghouse in the the pre-revolution period. Evacuated only a few days before the ousting of the former Shah, Mr Trivedi said he had found that little had changed, and heaped praise on the Iranians for their hospitality and friendliness.

Mr Arvind Dhar, MD of Travcare, Johannesburg, South Africa, said he saw potential for pilgrimage trips to the various Islamic shrines by the Muslim population in South Africa with side visits to the many other world heritage sites.

A Chinese travel agent said Iran would boom for Chinese visitors once it gains approved destination status. She said that at the moment most of the visitors were business travellers.

Angela Ng, MD of Blue Sky Travel Services, in Hong Kong said that as a new destination and potential new revenue source, it was important to offer Iran to clients. However, she said the dress code restrictions and other factors such as curbs on alcohol would have to be properly explained in advance.

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