By Afshin Majlesi

The future of travel in Iran

September 9, 2020 - 19:18

Ubiquitous face masks, partitions, social distances, customer-service protocols, not-yet-fulfilled refunds, and self-quarantined at home on a mass scale, as well as closed borders, canceled events, and changing policies challenge tourism industry insiders to forecast what the lingering impact of the novel coronavirus could be on the way we travel.

Contrary to what we had already perceived from many other catastrophes, the coronavirus pandemic never stunned us a single shattering event. Instead, the deadly disease gently snaked its way around the world, affecting the lives of various nations growing into a global crisis.

Since it first surfaced late in 2019, the pandemic has created a greater demand for experiences away from crowds, which is opposite to many traveling pillars. So such preference for solo travel will probably continue till a coronavirus vaccine is ever-present.

In Iran, like any other country, the wound inflicted by the virus on the tourism industry is also so deep, to some extent and it hasn’t stopped bleeding yet! In July, the Islamic Republic decided to extend a ban on inbound group tours as the country was still grappling with the pandemic but letting solo travelers enter under health protocols.

Tourism [industry of Iran] was growing before the corona [outbreak], its revenues reached $11.7 billion in 2019, which accounted for 2.8% of GDP, near the average share of tourism in the world GDP, which was 3.2 percent, according to Ali-Asghar Mounesan, the minister of Cultural Heritage, Tourism and, Handicrafts.

“Corona has caused damage to many countries around the world, and our country’s travel sector has so far suffered a loss of 12 trillion rials (some $2.85 billion at the official rate of 42,000 rials).”

On the other hand, the pandemic has caused passenger demand to collapse, forcing jetliners to park, rather than fly. For instance, it took a huge toll on the civil aviation sector with reports showing that airlines lost hundreds of millions of dollars because of flight cancellations during the busy Noruz (Persian New Year) travel season in late March.

The numbers of foreign travelers to Iran have drastically plunged since the virus made its debut as the country registered only 74 international visits during spring, which is traditionally a high season.

“Iran’s [inbound] tourism came to almost zero and the country had 74 foreign tourists in the first three months of this [Iranian calendar] year (started on March 20), due to corona outbreak,” For now, however, tourism may look different in several ways. People can expect to explore a world of face masks, physical distancing, closed businesses, and two-week quarantines. But what changes are expected in both the short- and long-term? Here are the views of some experts to help to have predictions on an uncertain future.

Some initial forecasts suggest travel and tourism will grow. In an interview with the Tehran Times back in May, the deputy tourism minister Vali Teymouri assumed that the tourism industry of the Islamic Republic would be getting back on the right track sooner than expected. “I believe that tourism industry of the country will get back on the right track far sooner than generally expected thanks to the measures taken to deal with the spread of coronavirus in tourist destinations, hotels, stopovers, and all the centers which are affiliated with the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, Tourism and Handicrafts.”

Others predicted that the sector would not be reverting to what it was before, adjusting to new world scales and expect fewer crowds in all tourism-related places. Mohammad Ali Vaqefi, the vice president of the Iranian Tour Operators Association, warned in June that the pandemic might move domestic tours into ‘the realm of luxury’ as observing health protocols will raise the costs.

Several Iranian experts have explained the kinds of protection that the government could provide to COVID-19-hit people and businesses. “Such amount of bailouts will not compensate for much of the losses as the virus pandemic has brought tourism to a standstill for two months,” said Amir-Pouya Rafiei-Shad who presides over Tehran province’s Tour and Travel Agencies Association.

Rafiei-Shad added that the Iranian government needs to offer tax exemption to the tourism industry for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 fiscal years, and provide social welfare support to employees of this sector.

Tour guide Mahdiyeh Jahangir believes that “Nobody assumes the responsibility for the unemployment of tour guides in the face of coronavirus pandemic.” According to her, one of the reasons for this situation is the lack of employers for tour guides. She considers the lack of social insurance as one of the most important problems of tour guides during the virus outbreak. “We only have a tour guide ID card and nothing more,” she lamented.

In early August, the tourism minister said that it is true that the coronavirus pandemic is a [bitter] reality but it cannot bring traveling to a complete standstill. “Corona is a fact, but can the virus stop tourism? Certainly not. For us, the coronavirus is a new experience in dealing with crises that teaches tourism experts around the world how to deal with such a disaster, and thankfully governments are turning this into an opportunity for better planning.”

He, however, appeared almost surrendered days later, saying “people’s health is our first priority.” Mounesan said that his ministry is in full coordination with the Ministry of Health for strictly implementing health protocols in travel destinations, hospitably centers, and museums, amongst others, underlining that “people’s health is our first priority.”

In his latest speech, the minister said that “responsible tourism” is a workable solution for holidaymakers to get assured of safe traveling during the coronavirus pandemic. “The tourism ministry has no authority over [people’s plans for] travels and we cannot tell people to travel or not. Many people travel on their own without using the capacity of tours, which can have its own impacts the virus spread but if trips are carried our through tours and in official accommodation centers that follow all health protocols, they would be safer with lower risks.”

A collective effort made by both government and people in particular health professionals has saved many lives over the past couple of months. Sadly, the disease has claimed the lives of over 22,000 Iranians so far, according to official data provided by the government.

Iran expects to reap a bonanza from its numerous tourist spots such as bazaars, museums, mosques, bridges, bathhouses, madrasas, mausoleums, churches, towers, and mansions, of which 24 being inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Under the 2025 Tourism Vision Plan, it aims to increase the number of tourist arrivals from 4.8 million in 2014 to 20 million in 2025. So it will undeniably try its best to achieve a relatively ambitious goal but when that happens the travel industry is likely to look more altered.


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