This is Part 1 of a 3-part series: Iran Tourism
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Tourism in North Africa and the Middle East has fallen this year because of the ongoing political upheavals there. But industry watchers say the level of foreign tourist traffic to Iran has remained mostly stable. Iran's tourism sector is on the rise, though analysts say it is far from meeting its full potential.
They may be small, but the two miniatures Deborah Rogers bought on a recent vacation to Iran hang prominently in her New York City apartment. Her favorite has an image of Saadi, the great Persian poet.
"I love him thinking off into the distance," said Rogers. "It looks as if he's just read something that he now has to contemplate."
Rogers is one of more than two million international visitors who traveled to Iran last year, that's up by more than half a million visitors since 2004.
Those visitors are spending more than $2 billion each year, nearly four times what they spent in Iran each year a decade ago.
Xu Jing is the Asia regional director for the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). Via Skype he told VOA that Iran ranks among the top ten countries in the world for cultural and historical sites.
"The whole range of cultural products, I would say, can be compared with the rest of the world, with anywhere in the world - Greece, Italy, France, China, India. And I think they have an amazing potential for bigger scale and bigger volume of the traffic," noted Xu.
But the UNWTO also says Iran is not meeting its full tourism potential. International tourism brought more than $50 billion into the Middle East last year. Yet Iran only gets about four percent of those foreign tourist dollars. And Iran ranks low among Middle East nations for numbers of foreign visitors, on a par with war-torn countries like Iraq and Lebanon.
So Iran, says Xu Jing, has been investing heavily in its tourism sector.
"They are also looking at tourism like many other countries do - how tourism can actually help [in] mainstreaming its own national development agenda," added Xu.
Iran has also relaxed some of its tourist visa requirements. A spokesman for the Iran Special Interests Section in Washington said Iran currently approves nearly every tourist visa requested by private American citizens, as long as the applicant is not a U.S. official or does not hold a sensitive security job. The primary requirement is that they travel to Iran on an organized tour as Deborah Rogers did.
"Essentially you're cared for from start to finish. So I have said it to many people, it's incredibly easy to go to Iran," Rogers explained.
Analysts say the main challenge to Iran's tourism sector will be in changing the way Westerners feel about visiting the country. That may not be easy. A British survey of travel perceptions toward the Middle East shows Iran is among the last countries people want to visit, after only Afghanistan and Iraq.