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Analysis: Holiday in the "Axis of Evil"

A postcard from Iran, one of the world's great travel destinations, that only a few determined Americans get to see.

In recent years, the Iranian authorities have worked to improve the tourist experience. New hotels have been built and old ones have been renovated. Few are up to international standards, though, and traveling here still requires some adjustments.

Women, including female tourists, must wear head scarves at all times. Possessing or consuming alcohol is illegal. Few restaurants offer anything other than kebabs and stew. Signs at many sites are in Farsi only. Economic sanctions have made U.S.-issued credit cards useless in all but a few places. Western-style conveniences are hard to find; in the first-class lounge at Imam Khomeini Airport, the toilet is a hole in the floor.

“I took a group of Iranians to Singapore and Malaysia recently,” one Iranian tour guide told me. “Those are nice places, but their tourist sites are almost nothing compared to what we have in Iran. But what little they have, they display and protect and promote much better than we do. They have first-class hotels. Everything a tourist could possibly want is at your fingertips. Iran has more to offer tourists than almost any other country in the world, but our infrastructure isn't up to world standards.”

Countries seeking to raise their tourism standards often launch joint ventures with American or European hotel chains and tour operators accustomed to serving Westerners. Because Iran is under economic sanctions and faces political uncertainty, however, many potential partners shy away from investing here. That will likely remain the case until Iran strikes some kind of broad political deal with the U.S. and the European Union.

Slightly more than 2 million tourists visited Iran last year — a tiny number compared to the 25 million who visited neighboring Turkey, pumping more than $20 billion into the Turkish economy. Most come from the U.S. and Europe. Fewer are coming this year, partly as a result of fears sparked by the violent protests that followed last June's disputed election. One hotel alone, the Shiraz Homa, reported 2,000 cancellations as news of the protests spread around the world.

“People in other countries turn on their televisions and they see people getting shot in Iran, so they're afraid to come here,” said a young man who is studying tourism planning at Tehran University. “There is no reason to be afraid, but I can understand why they are.”

But John Woods, a professor of Middle East studies at the University of Chicago, who led an archeology-focused tour here in May, said the undercurrent of political tension intrigues some outsiders.

“There's a kind of deadly fascination about what's going on here,” he said. “The very fact that it seems somewhat dangerous and iffy is part of what appeals to some people.”

The danger of visiting Iran, though, exists only in the minds of people who make assumptions about this country without visiting. Janet Moore, director of the California travel agency Distant Horizons, said that in her 10 years of organizing tours to Iran, “not a single one of my tourists has ever had a problem.” Travelers I met here, without exception, bubbled over with enthusiasm.

“I was very surprised — by the sights, the people and the level of development,” said Huguette Combs, a Swiss-American who lives in San Francisco. “I was also expecting more of a police presence. There's hardly any as far as I can tell. It's an eye-opener to me.”

The director of a Tehran travel agency said years of violence in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan have scared many tourists away.

“People don't know that Iran is a very safe island in this region,” he said. “As long as there is instability in our region, we're going to have this problem. Another problem is our image. Every day something comes up about Iran, and it's mostly negative. We haven't done much to introduce Iran to the world. People don't know about Iran, which is partly our fault. When they learn what Iran really is, this country is going to be packed with tourists. There will be long lines at tourist sites. I'm very optimistic about this. It's going to happen.”

A sign in one of the airport departure lounges sums up the odd mixture of political hostility and private friendliness that shapes U.S.-Iran relations. “This revolution is not recognized anywhere in the world without the name of Imam Khomeini,” it says. “Have a nice trip.”