GUEST POST (sort of) – David McGuinness, founder and director of off-the-beaten-track tour specialists, Travel The Unknown, spent 25 days in Iran in October 2012, and has been reflecting publicly on the state of tourism to Iran in the light of the recent election – I’m re-producing it here…
Change is coming to Iran. At this stage it is difficult to say to what extent the election of Hassan Rouhani with the backing of Iran’s reformists will affect Iran’s relations with the West, or living conditions for Iran’s 75 million citizens, but there is a now a momentum to the sense of change I felt in the air last October when I travelled there with my girlfriend to set up our Iran tours.
Lonely Planet’s newest Iran guidebook had only come out in August 2012, but within only two months it described an old Iran, one that had since changed dramatically. The book explained that in Iran, and particularly since the failed Green Revolution in 2009, people were reluctant to talk politics, to the extent that they would remove the battery from their already switched off mobile phones before broaching the subject. Such was the apparent fear of being caught out. So it came as a surprise when a student, only a couple of days into our trip, approached us and immediately started talking about the Iranian government and political system in a very open and less than complimentary manner. And he was the first of many. People didn’t seem worried, or afraid, and the feeling that the regime is in its final throes was commonly expressed.
The protests in Tehran’s bazaars, amongst the people normally most supportive of the government, certainly shook the foundations of the Islamic Republic. The number of protesters alone threatened to tilt the balance of power against the regime and it seemed this fact wasn’t lost on the street. Previous economic issues have caused the government to back down, for example, in previous attempts to increase the price of petrol which is very heavily subsidised. Clearly the regime, though perhaps not removable at the ballot box, are still susceptible to public feeling and need to keep up some appearance of legitimacy to be seen to represent the people. The dramatic fall of the currency, which lost a quarter of its value in a single week while we were there, exposed the present instability of the economy, suffering under both Western sanctions and government mismanagement. The upcoming election I felt would be an opportunity for the Ayatollah to gently switch track without being seen to do anything of the sort. A rapprochement with the West, including hopefully a softer line on the nuclear issue, and some easing of sanctions as a result, would of course be just the natural result of a change in the democratically elected leader of the country. Evidence of a functioning democracy. Or so the narrative could be spun.
Yet Lonely Planet wasn’t wrong to prioritise “meeting the people” as the number one item on their highlights list. The warmth of the welcome, the helpfulness and the hospitality of Iranians, were quite remarkable. If they didn’t speak English they called their friend who did. If they didn’t know where something was they found someone who could help. Going the extra mile was the norm, and it was always done with a smile. The wonderful Iranian people, whether religious or secular, liberal or conservative, young or old, were kind, genuine, and an absolute pleasure to deal with. Even the taxi drivers were honest! This is not the picture that most people have when they think of Iranians, but the truth is the Iranian people are a real credit to themselves.
One of the local operators we work with in Iran is Cyrus. He is 73 of age and climbed Mount Damavand (5,610m in altitude) last year, and most years previous to this. I struggled to follow a man almost 40 years my senior as we navigated the busy streets of Tehran; he is a force of nature with a smiley, bubbly personality to match. His company handled about 300 travellers per day under the golden era of tourism under Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, the reformist, Mohammed Khatami. Today they handle about 300 in a year. Not that Cyrus is the type to complain.
Another memorable encounter on our trip was with Mortesa, our driver for the day’s journey between Shiraz and Yazd. Mortesa was a real character who had spent time in the United Arab Emirates and Sweden after the 1979 revolution. He was continually chatting, telling us jokes and anecdotes, and asking about our lives in London and our home countries. He told a fantastic story about the time Iran’s morality police caught him in a vehicle with a younger woman he was not related to. She was only a friend whom he was driving to visit her mother, but the morality police are not known for being the understanding type. Since she was sleeping Mortesa told them she was his niece. But they asked him to wake her and took her outside for questioning, just within view. He saw her say he was her husband so when the man returned he asked him, ‘Have you finished questioning my wife?’ Confused, the man said that Mortesa had previously claimed she was his niece. “Not at all, you must be tired”, he retorted. The man went back and asked something else to his “wife”, and then returned. “What TV do you have at home?”, he asked. Mortesa replied “Samsung”. “Thank you, you may go sir”. I can see Mortesa driving away with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
I am hopeful that Cyrus, Mortesa and the tens of thousands of others who work in tourism in Iran will have a second golden era of tourism to look forward to.