A recent British opinion poll found Iran near the top of the list of countries people would "definitely not" visit. Yet nearly two million international visitors traveled to Iran last year, and the country is trying to widen the appeal of its tourism industry. Iran is attracting a type of tourist the industry calls "adventure travelers." They come mostly from Western nations in search of a unique experience, the kind they might not find in typical destinations like Paris or London.
To most Americans, Iran is an unlikely holiday destination. Fewer than 1,500 Americans visited Iran last year. So when Deborah Rogers, seen here in home video, vacationed in Iran last March, many of the people she met were surprised to see an actual American tourist.
"[Local Iranians were] surprised to see Americans and wondered why we came and what we thought," recalled Rogers. "That was their first question. 'Do you like it here?' "
The U.S. government does not prohibit its citizens from travelling to Iran, but it issues travel warnings about the risks of going there. American tourists like Rogers ignore the travel advisory. They're what the tourism industry calls "adventure travelers," a niche group of international tourists who avoid typical tourist locations and seek out alternative destinations.
"I think it's always a special clientele that would consider going to Iran," noted Juergen Steinmetz who heads the American Iran Tourism Association, which encourages tourism trade between Iran and the U.S. "It's not the general tourist; it's not the tourist that may be worried that much about safety and travel warnings; it's sometimes maybe more an adventurist. It's cultural and also repeat tourism I think what is contributing to this."
Industry analysts say Iran is relaxing some of its visa requirements. There's even a visa-on-arrival policy in place now for numerous nationalities, including Americans, which allows visitors from arrival points like Dubai to Kish Island - a free trade zone in Iran, without securing a visa in advance.
Ken Fish runs a travel agency in New York City which regularly offer tours to Iran. He says there is still some anxiety associated with the destination but the fear disappears once travelers encounter Persian hospitality.
"I think what happens is there's this moment when they've remembered that they've forgotten to be afraid and how much they are really enjoying the destination," noted Fish. "And I think that just elevates their level of enjoyment that much more than they would from another destination."
A tour package to Iran can cost 4,000 dollars per person for ten days. American tour operators say about 70 percent of the money goes directly into Iran's local economies. But they add Iran will probably never be a "shopping destination" for tourists. Deborah Rogers spent only two hundred dollars on souvenirs in Iran - but regrets not doing more shopping there.
"God willing I'll go back again," said Rogers. "The second time I'll know what I'm doing in terms of wanting to live with Persian art in my midst."