Dutch backpacker defies politics to invest in Iran

Wed Nov 5, 2008 7:18pm EST
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By Fredrik Dahl

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Sebastian Straten is going against the flow. As some Western corporations pack up and mothball projects in Iran under pressure of sanctions, the entrepreneurial Dutchman is preparing for the day when tourists flock to the Islamic state.

His guest house business -- a joint venture with an Iranian partner which was dreamed up during a backpacking holiday three years ago -- may be an unlikely embryo for a fortune.

But it serves to highlight the potential opportunities companies in the West are passing up to Asian rivals happy to do business with a country that outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush included in his world view of an "axis of evil."

Straten is developing a small-scale hotels venture in the central city of Yazd, renowned for its labyrinth of lanes between old mudbrick buildings and 'windcatcher' towers designed to cool houses in the desert heat.

He aims to expand to the cities of Isfahan, Shiraz and Qazvin, opening more hotels on the Silk Road, an ancient trade route that linked China with the Middle East and Europe.

Famous tourist sights in Iran include 2,500-year-old ruins at Persepolis near Shiraz and 16th-century Islamic architectural gems in Isfahan. Visitors to the Middle Eastern country can also enjoy skiing, diving and nature.

Straten himself first came to the Islamic Republic as a tourist in 2005: he is not blind to the risks but is nonetheless confident his business will eventually pay off.

"Maybe I'm crazy," said Straten, who quit as product manager at a privately owned pharmaceutical firm to go backpacking, and is now obsessed by the potential of the two small hotels he and his Iranian partner Ali Montazer Ghaem currently own.   Continued...

<p>A general view of the Zoroastrian fire temple in Yazd, 700 kilometres (435 miles) south of Tehran October 15, 2008. To match feature IRAN-INVESTOR/ REUTERS/Caren Firouz</p>