Holiday in the “axis of evil”

May 28, 2010


This article by Stephen Kinzer originally appeared in GlobalPost.

YAZD, Iran —“You are American?” a surprised Iranian asked me as I sat down near him in a restaurant famous for eggplant and pomegranate stews. “How did you get a visa?”

Ever since 2002, when U.S. President George W. Bush named Iran a member of the world’s anti-American “Axis of Evil” — or perhaps since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the searing hostage crisis that followed — the idea that American tourists would visit Iran has seemed to border on the bizarre. Yet an adventurous few do come, and most find a welcome far beyond what they had imagined.

In no other country is there such an imbalance between the wealth of tourist attractions and the dearth of tourists. If Iran were a fully open country, sites like the awe-inspiring ruins at Persepolis or the dazzling mosques of Isfahan would be jammed with visitors from around the world. Instead they are all but empty, offering visitors one of the world’s richest travel experiences.

During a two-week trip through Iran in May, I ran across groups of intrepid travelers at almost every stop. All marveled at what they saw.

“It’s great to be here before the crowds come,” Jamie Whittington, who came with a tour group from California, said as she surveyed an ancient Zoroastrian “tower of silence,” where corpses were once placed on ceremonial slabs for vultures to consume. “This place is waiting to be discovered.”

In the lobby of a Tehran hotel, I met an 81-year-old woman from Berkeley who said that when she told friends she was traveling to Iran, “they thought I had a screw loose.”

“My husband was more nervous than I was, and he called the State Department to ask their opinion,” she said. “They told him that the two governments don’t get along, but Americans are welcome in Iran. I was impressed that the State Department would say that.”

According to reports in the American press, U.S. intelligence agencies are engaged in covert operations against Iran. Perhaps as a result, tourists who come here are not allowed to roam freely. They must travel in groups, engage Iranian guides and stick to established tourist sites. A tour organizer who sought to arrange a visit to the hometown of former Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, a secular democrat who was prime minister from 1951 until he was toppled in a CIA-backed coup in 1953, was told that it is not open to foreigners.

Nonetheless, the variety of sites on the approved list is rich and varied. I met a tour guide from New Zealand, Harry McQuillan, who had just taken his group on a trip through the Zagros Mountains that culminated in a festive tribal wedding.

“When people in New Zealand think of Iran, they think of oil, desert and Arabs,” he told me. “They are absolutely astounded when they get here. The people are wonderful and the sights are some of the most spectacular in the world.”

Americans have the same reaction, compounded by their amazement at how warmly they are greeted. Iranians love to approach foreigners, and when they hear the phrase “We are American,” they often shriek with delight.

“We are so happy to see American people in Iran,” a woman in Kirman, beaming with joy, told the group I traveled with. “We know they say very bad things about us there, but we like Americans so much.”

In recent years, the Iranian authorities have worked to improve the tourist experience. New hotels have been built and old ones have been renovated. Few are up to international standards, though, and traveling here still requires some adjustments.

Women, including female tourists, must wear head scarves at all times. Possessing or consuming alcohol is illegal. Few restaurants offer anything other than kebabs and stew. Signs at many sites are in Farsi only. Economic sanctions have made U.S.-issued credit cards useless in all but a few places. Western-style conveniences are hard to find; in the first-class lounge at Imam Khomeini Airport, the toilet is a hole in the floor.

“I took a group of Iranians to Singapore and Malaysia recently,” one Iranian tour guide told me. “Those are nice places, but their tourist sites are almost nothing compared to what we have in Iran. But what little they have, they display and protect and promote much better than we do. They have first-class hotels. Everything a tourist could possibly want is at your fingertips. Iran has more to offer tourists than almost any other country in the world, but our infrastructure isn’t up to world standards.”

Countries seeking to raise their tourism standards often launch joint ventures with American or European hotel chains and tour operators accustomed to serving Westerners. Because Iran is under economic sanctions and faces political uncertainty, however, many potential partners shy away from investing here. That will likely remain the case until Iran strikes some kind of broad political deal with the U.S. and the European Union.

Slightly more than 2 million tourists visited Iran last year — a tiny number compared to the 25 million who visited neighboring Turkey, pumping more than $20 billion into the Turkish economy. Most come from the U.S. and Europe. Fewer are coming this year, partly as a result of fears sparked by the violent protests that followed last June’s disputed election. One hotel alone, the Shiraz Homa, reported 2,000 cancellations as news of the protests spread around the world.

“People in other countries turn on their televisions and they see people getting shot in Iran, so they’re afraid to come here,” said a young man who is studying tourism planning at Tehran University. “There is no reason to be afraid, but I can understand why they are.”

But John Woods, a professor of Middle East studies at the University of Chicago, who led an archeology-focused tour here in May, said the undercurrent of political tension intrigues some outsiders.

“There’s a kind of deadly fascination about what’s going on here,” he said. “The very fact that it seems somewhat dangerous and iffy is part of what appeals to some people.”

The danger of visiting Iran, though, exists only in the minds of people who make assumptions about this country without visiting. Janet Moore, director of the California travel agency Distant Horizons, said that in her 10 years of organizing tours to Iran, “not a single one of my tourists has ever had a problem.” Travelers I met here, without exception, bubbled over with enthusiasm.

“I was very surprised — by the sights, the people and the level of development,” said Huguette Combs, a Swiss-American who lives in San Francisco. “I was also expecting more of a police presence. There’s hardly any as far as I can tell. It’s an eye-opener to me.”

The director of a Tehran travel agency said years of violence in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan have scared many tourists away.

“People don’t know that Iran is a very safe island in this region,” he said. “As long as there is instability in our region, we’re going to have this problem. Another problem is our image. Every day something comes up about Iran, and it’s mostly negative. We haven’t done much to introduce Iran to the world. People don’t know about Iran, which is partly our fault. When they learn what Iran really is, this country is going to be packed with tourists. There will be long lines at tourist sites. I’m very optimistic about this. It’s going to happen.”

A sign in one of the airport departure lounges sums up the odd mixture of political hostility and private friendliness that shapes U.S.-Iran relations. “This revolution is not recognized anywhere in the world without the name of Imam Khomeini,” it says. “Have a nice trip.”

Other stories from GlobalPost can be found here:

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China suicides: is Apple headed for a consumer backlash?

5 things you need to know about Kim Jong Il’s brain

Has Colombia found its Obama?


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Posted by Holiday in the “axis of evil” | Report as abusive

“According to reports in the American press, U.S. intelligence agencies are engaged in covert operations against Iran”.

If this is true, why? We need to get out of other nations business altogether. This is spawning hate against Americans all over the world. Iran is a peaceful nation that wants to defend itself against the nuclear weaponry of Israel who loves to destroy its neighbors for no reason. I would be seeking nukes too, if I were running Iran. I would be simply defending my people against a very rogue and sinister country called Israel.

Posted by freetheenk | Report as abusive

Israel has never vowed to destroy its neighbors – the reverse is true. The people of Israel, following the Holocaust, were given their this land by the U.N, encouraged by western nations to go there, and then abandoned to the open hostility of their violence-espousing neighbors, for whom the U.N. made no provision.

Posted by SeaScapes | Report as abusive

Israel does not vow to destroy its neighbors because it is just trying to defend what it has already acquired. The “violence-espousing neighbors” are just following Churchill’s famous message: Never give up. Apparently that was a good message for England but is an evil message for Arabs. They should be more docile and know when they have been totally defeated.

Posted by AmericaninCan1 | Report as abusive

“Go hiking in Iran today! What’s the worst that could happen? You might get an all-expense vacation for at least 300 days – just ask our last lucky winners… Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd, and Josh Fattal. If you win the grand prize, you might even be allowed to have your family come and visit … all while enjoying the hospitality of local law enforcement! Don’t miss your opportunity to learn about our special hunger strike program… it’s an experience you’ll never forget!”

As Steven alludes, when individual Iranians and Americans engage in one-on-one interactions, the results tend to be almost always positive. Normal Iranians have a fairly good grasp of and appreciation for American cultural items that don’t blatantly offend Islamic sensibilities (e.g. Anything related to Brittany Spears) and as my old college ping-pong partner used to say, “We hate America for what it does, but we don’t hate Americans.”

Posted by johannesg | Report as abusive

“Israel does not vow to destroy its neighbors because it is just trying to defend what it has already acquired. The “violence-espousing neighbors” are just following Churchill’s famous message: Never give up. Apparently that was a good message for England but is an evil message for Arabs. They should be more docile and know when they have been totally defeated.” – Posted by AmericaninCan1

Yes, Israel “is just trying to defend what it has already acquired” – freedom, security, and statehood in the land of their forefathers.
Yes, Arabs “have been totally defeated” every time they started wars – 1948, 1967, 1973, and unfortunately counting goes on. Even the wars Arabs declared as their victories – Lebanon 2006 and Gaza 2009. The economies of Lebanon and Gaza were destroyed, the front lines breached, Israeli Air Force unopposed and tanks roamed at will. Arab losses were orders of magnitude greater and mounting. Resistance was mostly symbolic and limited to firing crude missiles hoping some of them may hit something. Germany in 1945 was in better shape when Hitler chose to commit suicide and open the way for his successors to surrender. Yet Hamas and Hezbollah leaders chose to sit it out in their bunkers and then, when Israel decided to stop bloodshed of THEIR people and utter destruction of THEIR land, emerge from their holes and declare “victory”. How appalling and abominable are these leaders when even Hitler looks a statesman comparing to them.
By the way, both these terrorist organizations are supported, financed, armed, and directed by Iran. And now they are vying for my dollars by way of tourism. Not a single penny to terror supporters. Well, maybe only in form of my tax dollars paid for the bombs and missiles – when and if current (or, more likely, future) President decides to apply real sanctions.

Posted by An0nym0us | Report as abusive

To SeaScapes:
While is is true that the UN gave the land to Israel, the question is who gave the UN the power to give land that was not theirs to give.
Perhaps the UN should have given the people of Israel, Texas.
That would have solved two problems.
1. The immigration problem for the US
2. Friendly neighbors for Israel

Posted by Jackm | Report as abusive

This is a great article! I’ve been looking for a place to go backpacking but I thought Europe sounded a bit cliche. Thanks Reuters!

Posted by benmo | Report as abusive

The UN never gave the land to Israel. The UN has not got the right to do so.

The UN merely attempted to mediate the conflict. And had the Arab nations accepted the Partition Plan, this would have happened.

But the Arab nations did not accept the plan, and the Plan ended on the same day the Arabs declared war. The Arab nations gambled on war, and they lost the gamble. Now they look back on the plan with gambler’s remorse.

Israel gained their land through act of independence. And when their independence was not accepted by their neighbours, it was upheld through force.

For in the end, strength is the final determination of a people’s independence.

That is why Israel has gained it. And why the Palestinians, in their eagerness to destroy Israel, eventually gambled away their own.

Posted by Anon86 | Report as abusive

In 1953 the United States conspired to overthrow the nascent democracy of Mossadegh by overthrowing his government for nationalizing Iran’s oil industry. It then proceeded to instal a pro US autocrat – the Shah and supported his government even as it committed massive human rights abuses against its own people, most of whom were desperate to have a say in their own governance.

In 1980, within a few months of the Iranian revolution, the US instigated its pet dictator in the region, Saddam Hussein to attack Iran and use poison gas against Iranian civilians. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians died as a result.

Also, in 1988 the USS Vincennes shot down a civilian Iranian jetliner in the Arabian Gulf, causing the deaths of close to 300 civilians, with the US Vice President responding to the outrage by asserting that he would never apologize for anything the US did, he did not care what the facts were.

Now we are told that Hillary Clinton intends to “obliterate” Iran, the US’s own intelligence report in 2003 asserting the lack of evidence of Iranian nuclear weapons program notwithstanding.

With a record like that, who can blame ordinary Iranians from fearing the US’s malignant influence in the region ? If anything, Iran’s people deserved to be lauded for being able to distinguish between the travesties of US foreign policy and American civilians.

And that is without getting started on the other travesties US foreign policy has been responsible for, particularly the support for Israel’s persecution of the Palestinians and the criminal aggression in Iraq.

Posted by Sasboy | Report as abusive

The initiative taken for the concern is very serious and need an attention of every one. This is the concern which exists in the society and needs to be eliminated from the society as soon as possible. The people are loosing their moral while becoming modern. The society needs to be attentive that moral value.
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Holiday Travel Bureau

Posted by tanygeo01 | Report as abusive

Hat’s off. Well done, as we know that “hard work always pays off”, after a long struggle with sincere effort it’s done. This action proof to be a win, win situation. This is a true art work, which will be a success story.
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Holiday Travel Bureau

Posted by tanygeo01 | Report as abusive