Middle East / 4 February 2016, 7:00pm / JENNY COAD AND RUPERT STEINER
Tehran - It may seem one of the most unlikely “must-visit” destinations, but Iran is enjoying a tourism boom.
After years of sanctions and travel warnings, package holidays to the Islamic republic are selling fast.
And British Airways confirmed it is to reintroduce flights to the capital, Tehran, for the first time in four years.
BA will be the first British carrier to offer a direct route since the lifting of economic sanctions was signalled last month in the wake of a historic nuclear deal between Iran and the US. It will begin flights from Heathrow in the summer, and plans daily flights by next winter.
With the thawing in international relations, Iran’s beaches, breathtaking Islamic architecture and mouth-watering cuisine could make it one of the trendy destinations for 2016.
Tours to the Persian Gulf state are already selling out fast.
Jonny Bealby, managing director of adventure travel company Wild Frontiers, said the numbers of bookings received by his firm for trips to Iran have been “going ballistic” in recent months.
In 2013, they were taking two group tours to Iran and organising roughly ten tailor-made trips. This year, they have put on extra tours after all 12 sold out. Iran, home to one of the earliest civilisations, has more Unesco rated sites than any other country in the region.
Tehran, as well as being a bustling business centre, is a treasure chest of mosques, fortresses and temples. Its Tahara Palace is famous for its stunning architecture. Outside the capital, attractions include Shiraz, with its Pink Mosque and historic gardens, and Isfahan, where the huge Naqsh-e Jahan Square is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
BA has a long history of flying to the oil-rich nation, first operating scheduled flights between London and Tehran in 1946.
Neil Cottrell of BA said: “The recent lifting of sanctions opens up exciting new prospects for Iran as a tourist destination and with its rich heritage, unique architecture and world-class food it’s unsurprising Tehran is tipped to be a popular destination for 2016. Iran is a large and growing economy and Tehran is a brilliant business city so we are incredibly excited to be adding another gateway to the Middle East for our customers.”
The easing of tensions with the West has meant the British Foreign Office has relaxed its advice for travellers. In August, the British Embassy reopened in Tehran having closed for four years after being ransacked by a mob, while Iran’s embassy in London reopened at the same time.
Masoud Soltanifar, director of the Iran Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organisation, hopes to welcome 20 million tourists a year by 2025, bring in business worth £19-billion a year. Currently, the country hosts around 4million tourists a year.
However, holidays to Iran are not cheap. Tours with Wild Frontiers cost from £2 195 (about R44 000) – without flights.
Travel firm Cox & Kings reintroduced Iran in October last year for the first time since 2011. It has seen a rush of bookings, worth over £100 000, and has ten departure dates for 2016 on its Iran: Treasures of Persia ten-night escorted tour, which costs £1 995 per person.
On arrival, tourists face strict local laws which include a ban on drinking alcohol.
Dress codes for women have been relaxed, with western women no longer required to put on full black robes and instead allowed baggy tops and a loose head covering, such as a scarf.