Iran tourism sector aims to rebuild as international tensions thaw

Fri Mar 6, 2015 1:20pm EST
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By Maria Sheahan and Victoria Bryan

BERLIN (Reuters) - Iranian businessman Cyrus Etemadi has had a stand at Berlin's ITB travel trade fair every year for more than 20 years, even when tension with the West meant few tourists visited the former ancient kingdom of Persia.

As the pragmatic President Hassan Rouhani, successor to hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, tries to reverse the path of antagonism to the West, Etemadi hopes he can rebuild his tour business, Cyrus Sahra, to its former strength.

"I used to have 70 people working with me, and we had 10,000 guests a year," he told Reuters on Friday at the ITB, the world's biggest travel trade fair.

"When Ahmadinejad came, there were fewer tourists every day, and then there were none," Etemadi, 75, said.

Iran made it onto the top destination lists of major publications such as The Financial Times and The Guardian last year thanks to sights that include 2,500-year-old ruins at Persepolis near Shiraz and 16th-century Islamic architectural gems in Isfahan.

But it will be some time before Iran becomes a mainstream destination given strict Islamic regulations and the ongoing impact of sanctions.

Under Iran's Islamic Sharia law, imposed since its 1979 Islamic revolution, women are obliged to cover their hair and body, unmarried couples may not share a hotel room and alcohol is banned. Western credit cards also don't work, meaning foreigners have to bring cash.