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Iran Claims Rise In Foreign Tourism Can Replace Oil Income

Two young tourists vising the central historic Iranian city of Isfahan. File photo

About 7.8 million tourists visited Iran in the last Iranian calendar year (ended March 20, 2019) registering a 52.5% growth compared with the previous year, the deputy head of the Islamic Republic's Cultural Heritage, Handcrafts and Tourism Organization (CHHTO) said.

"A majority of foreign tourists visiting Iran last year were from neighboring countries as well as European and American countries," the government's official news agency (IRNA) cited Vali Teymouri as saying on Thursday, May 2.

Based on the latest statistics presented by the World Tourism Organization (WTO), in 2017, only 4,867,000 foreign tourists traveled to Iran which indicates to a 1.5% and 7% drop, compared with the previous years, 2016 and 2015, respectively.

The Iranian national currency, the rial lost declined almost fourfold against the dollar in 2018 which encouraged more foreigners to travel to Iran.

The majority of foreigners visiting Iran are either pilgrims to the Shi'ites' holy sites in the country or tourists hunting for cheaper goods and products.

They were scandals in 2018 regarding Iraqi and other visitors from regional countries who simply come to buy goods that are offered cheaper in Iran due to a falling currency or for sex tourism.

The head of Iran's Cultural Heritage, Handicraft and Tourism Organization, Ali Asghar Mounesan, has also admitted that the lower cost of Iran travel packages was the critical factor that made the country more attractive for foreigners.

Mounesan has gone further by saying that revenues from tourism can replace those of the oil sector. However, he did not disclose tourism revenues.

This claim is a clear overestimation, when in normal conditions, Iran can easily have $45 billion export income annually from oil, based on $60 per barrel sale price.

Turkey, with a long tradition of tourism, more accessible geographic location, a free social environment and Mediterranean beaches had a total tourism income of $29.5 billion in 2018.

But this does not mean Iran should not try to develop its tourism industry, which would depend on infrastructure and security.

Iran had had a tradition of arresting foreigners and dual-nationals visiting the country. Currently several foreign nationals and dual-nationals are imprisoned in Iran on dubious charges.

Just last April, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif offered to exchange prisoners with the West. At issue were the same detainees Iran has held without due process of law.

Iran is still much farther away from achieving any tourism goal even close to that of Turkey.

"Iran has 157 four- and five-star hotels, and by the end of President Hassan Rouhani's second term in 2021, the figure will increase to 210. When the infrastructures are complete, income from tourism will replace oil revenues," Mounesan boasted in a tweet recently.

Nonetheless, many experts beg to differ with Mounesan.

Mohammad-Ali Ashraf Vaqefi, the deputy head of Iranian Tour Operators Association, believes that tourism has the potential to replace oil revenues, provided the sector gets the attention it deserves.

Furthermore, Vaqefi notes that Iran's tourism is suffering from inadequate infrastructure in tandem with a negative image worldwide.