Analysis: Holiday in the "Axis of Evil"

YAZD, Iran —“You are American?” a surprised Iranian asked me as I sat down near him in a restaurant famous for eggplant and pomegranate stews. “How did you get a visa?”

Ever since 2002, when U.S. President George W. Bush named Iran a member of the world's anti-American “Axis of Evil” — or perhaps since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the searing hostage crisis that followed — the idea that American tourists would visit Iran has seemed to border on the bizarre. Yet an adventurous few do come, and most find a welcome far beyond what they had imagined.

In no other country is there such an imbalance between the wealth of tourist attractions and the dearth of tourists. If Iran were a fully open country, sites like the awe-inspiring ruins at Persepolis or the dazzling mosques of Isfahan would be jammed with visitors from around the world. Instead they are all but empty, offering visitors one of the world's richest travel experiences.

During a two-week trip through Iran in May, I ran across groups of intrepid travelers at almost every stop. All marveled at what they saw.

“It's great to be here before the crowds come,” Jamie Whittington, who came with a tour group from California, said as she surveyed an ancient Zoroastrian “tower of silence,” where corpses were once placed on ceremonial slabs for vultures to consume. “This place is waiting to be discovered.”

In the lobby of a Tehran hotel, I met an 81-year-old woman from Berkeley who said that when she told friends she was traveling to Iran, “they thought I had a screw loose.”

“My husband was more nervous than I was, and he called the State Department to ask their opinion,” she said. “They told him that the two governments don't get along, but Americans are welcome in Iran. I was impressed that the State Department would say that.”

According to reports in the American press, U.S. intelligence agencies are engaged in covert operations against Iran. Perhaps as a result, tourists who come here are not allowed to roam freely. They must travel in groups, engage Iranian guides and stick to established tourist sites. A tour organizer who sought to arrange a visit to the hometown of former Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, a secular democrat who was prime minister from 1951 until he was toppled in a CIA-backed coup in 1953, was told that it is not open to foreigners.

Nonetheless, the variety of sites on the approved list is rich and varied. I met a tour guide from New Zealand, Harry McQuillan, who had just taken his group on a trip through the Zagros Mountains that culminated in a festive tribal wedding.

“When people in New Zealand think of Iran, they think of oil, desert and Arabs,” he told me. “They are absolutely astounded when they get here. The people are wonderful and the sights are some of the most spectacular in the world.”

Americans have the same reaction, compounded by their amazement at how warmly they are greeted. Iranians love to approach foreigners, and when they hear the phrase “We are American,” they often shriek with delight.

“We are so happy to see American people in Iran,” a woman in Kirman, beaming with joy, told the group I traveled with. “We know they say very bad things about us there, but we like Americans so much.”

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.”