According to the Washington Post, many international travelers are venturing to Iran following the plunge in the value of its currency, the rial. Some three million tourists visited the country in 2011, contributing more than $2 billion to the local economy, according to Iranian data.
Moreover, from 2004 to 2010, the annual increase in tourists visiting foreign countries was 3.2% worldwide, according to the UN World Tourism Organization, while in Iran tourism grew at a much faster pace – 12.7%.
“This is one of our only ways right now to earn hard currency,” tour guide Niloofar Ghatei from the southwestern city of Shiraz told the Washington Post. “If we can’t sell our oil, at least we can bring more tourists here.”
Most tourists arrive in Iran for religious reasons, in order to make pilgrimages to Shiite holy sites. Only about 20,000 of the visitors who entered Iran last year came for non-religious reasons, mostly from China and Germany, but also 1,000 Americans.
According to estimates, a significant number of the American tourists are of Persian decent and arrive in Iran to visit their relatives.
Although the US State Department warns against traveling to Iran, there are no restrictions on Americans visiting the country.
According to Margarette Beckwith, a retired landscape architect from Ohio who visited Iran in October, the Islamic Republic has no shortage of appeal for travelers.
“The people stand out as the best part, but also the history, historic sites and, of course, the gardens,” she told the Washington Post.
After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, hardline clerics called for the destruction of many of the country's pre-Islamic sites, some of them thousands of years old. But the authorities must have understood the importance of tourism, investing many resources in preserving and promoting the industry in recent years.
At the same time, obtaining an Iranian visa – which was a nightmare for Western visitors several years ago – has become much easier. And yet every American tourist must be accompanied by an official guide, and Iranian citizens are not allowed to host Americans in their homes.