Why Travel to Iran?
Was the question that I was met with in the days, weeks and months prior to my trip to Iran. I’ve just returned from a two week trip with G Adventures, exploring the centre of Iran.
“I hope you’re not becoming a militant” one friend half joked. Others reminded me over and again not to engage in any suspicious activity that might identify me as a spy (let alone a travel blogger…), and my parents anxiously instructed me not to go off the beaten track or take photos of anything that might be government related.
If I hadn’t been apprehensive about my trip to start with, 5 minutes spent listening to the warnings of others was enough to put a dampener on the whole plan.
Already know you want to travel to Iran? Read my posts about getting a visa or how to travel to Iran on an American, British or Canadian Passport here!
Why Wouldn’t you Travel to Iran?
Perhaps it’s better to start with this question.
Iran is infamous for its Revolution of 1979, which – within a couple of years – saw the country transform from one undergoing “liberal reforms” – as well as highly lucrative (for some) commercial deals with America, Britain and others under the last Shah of Iran. The Shah’s excesses an lavishness in the end were his come-uppance, and in 1979 he was overthrown by Ruhollah Khomeini, who would become the Supreme Leader of Iran.
Khomeini – supported by many – took over, and for better of worse, things started to change. In came Sharia Law. The wearing of Hejab did not become mandatory until roughly two years later however, and many of his (former) supporters did not see it coming. Hejab dress is modest islamic dress and involves wearing a headscarf and loose clothing or a “chador” for women. Compulsory Hejab is still in force today and all visitors to Iran need to adopt it.
Following the revolution of 1979 the US imposed sanctions, which were strengthened in 1985, cutting Iran off from the economy of the outside world, with crippling effect on Iran. Iran’s uranium enrichment program has been at centre stage. In 2016, after four years of talks over Iran’s nuclear development program, some sanctions were lifted, allowing American and other foreign companies to invest in Iran and for Iran to trade with the outside world.
In many respects though, Iran remains isolated. As a traveller visiting the network of ATM’s is pointless – as Iranian banking networks are cut off internationally. It’s strictly a cash economy.
Still today, Iran is a country that is well known for being cut off from the rest of the world by sanctions. Renowned for its suspicion of the West, its morality police, its fundamentalist interpretation of Sharia Law where homosexuality is still an offence punishable (in theory) by death.
In short, Iran gets a pretty bad rep on the human rights and freedom of speech front.
For that reason – combined with an unpredictable and challenging visa process for would-be-visitors from the UK and North America – Iran has been left off the bucket list for all but the most intrepid travellers for the last decades.
Times are Changing.
Since the easing of sanctions in 2016, Iran’s doors to the outside world have started to edge open.
Somewhere that was once as mysterious as it was absent from travel Instagram feeds, things in Iran have already started to dramatically shift. I can name more than a few handfuls of people in my travel circles who have visited Iran in the last year. And that number is increasing.
Iran is now opening for tourism. For a country crippled by the West and the resulting inflation inside the country, travellers may just be its golden ticket.
It’s also becoming easier than ever to travel to Iran and support local Iranians through community based and more sustainable tourism. Eco-friendly lodges and accommodations have sprung up, as well as companies such as TasteIran who offer authentic and local experiences and short tours in Iran.
Things are changing on the political spectrum too. The progressive government was re-elected just prior to my visit in June 2017. Although strict sharia law, including death-by-stoning and mandatory hijab still remain in theory; the reality (as I was told) is rather different.
Iran is not a country where all women are obliged to drape themselves in black sheets or “chadors” and have no voice.
On the contrary, ladies in Tehran and beyond are every bit as feisty as their counterparts in Paris, New York or Rome. White and bright colour clothes are seen particularly outside of the religious centres, and everyday the hejab is pushed a little further backwards on the head. Women are well educated, and make up many of those working in tourism.
Want more on Iran? Read about staying in a Silk Road Caravanserai here.
Travel to Iran to push beyond the Stereotypes
“If travel is most rewarding when it surprises, then Iran might just be the most rewarding destination on earth” ~ Lonely Planet
The media has done a great job of branding Iran as – at best – a cauldron of suspicion and conservatism.
As humans we’re great at judging from the outside. But what happens when we go somewhere and find that the stereotypes could not be further from the truth?
That’s what happened in Iran.
If travel is fatal to prejudice, a visit to Iran is a nail in its coffin.
Instead of religious fundamentalists, secret police and a land of suspicion I found some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met.
I found a land of eye-wateringly beautiful minarets and shrines, bustling bazaars and tea houses. People who were as curious as they are friendly as they are polite and highly educated. Iran boasts some of the best universities in the world. While some women choose to wear the black chador, no country could be further – in my opinion – from any Islamic Fundamentalist stereotype.
It’s only through seeing Iran through my own eyes that I know the stereotypes are not true.
Travel to Iran to see some of the Richest Culture to be found.
Iran has one of the oldest and richest cultures of anywhere in the world. The ancient city of Persepolis – seat of the Persian Empire – was founded hundreds of years before Rome.
Sophistication is not a new thing for Persians. Throughout the cafes of Tehran, the gardens of Kerman and the shrines of the Sufi poets in Shiraz, Iran oozes culture. The Mosques alone will leave you in awe of their beauty.
But perhaps the best surprise of all is how happy people are to see you there. Tales of Iranian hospitality are legendary from travellers, but I found them to be absolutely true. Even travelling as part of a group, I must have collected over a dozen invitations to houses or for tea during my trip, countless selfies, and chats with people who were just curious or wanted to improve their English.
And isn’t that what the best of travel is about?
Have you been to Iran? How did you find it? If not, would you go? Let me know in the comments below!
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24 thoughts on “Why Travel to Iran?!”
thanks for your post.I hope to see you again in Iran
thanks so much Reza for your comment! Me too, would love to return some day soon 🙂
Like you, I have recently started travelling to Iran on business, and have fallen in love with the people, the culture and the country. It is one of the most amazing places in the world, and the people.in the country are full of hope for the future. I would also suggest that you switch off the news and travel there instead!
That’s great to hear Jacob and I agree with you – turning off the news for a bit can be a great decision – especially not letting stereotypes determine where we will or will not travel to. All the best with your business trips to Iran!
I’m so happy that you got to have this once-in-a-lifetime experience! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and I look forward to reading more!
thanks Brianne! 🙂
Thank you for the post , Iran is one of my destination of dream , how about spiritual life of people ? Is there any volunteer opportunity s to participate ?
Thanks for your comment. I didn’t have time to volunteer on this trip so can’t recommend particular organisations for this unfortunately. All the best with your search!
I was supposed to go to Iran in March. Sadly, the Trump travel ban went into effect just at the point in time where the Visa application was being pursued, and so much uncertainty had brewed at exactly the wrong time. One day I’ll get back and do that trip I was supposed to do.
Sorry to hear that Cory! Happy that at least Americans are able to visit now again – I hope you get to go soon! Happy travels, Ellie
I found Tehran to be very overcrowded with lawless traffic. You are not safe walking on a footpath as bike riders ride on footpaths. Taxi drivers hike their prices for foreigners. Money changers known as Sarafi on Firdousi Street refused to change Australian dollars. Irani Riyal is worthless outside Iran. Iran has not progressed in the last four decades.
Hi there, yes for sure Tehran is congested and busy! I didn’t have any issues with taxi drivers personally but of course bargaining is part of the game. I hope you enjoyed seeing some of the rest of beautiful Iran.
“As humans we’re great at judging from the outside” True but that glosses over the real and terrible human rights abuses that happen in Iran, which you seem to breezily swat away simply because you visited as a tourist and didn’t anything nasty. So you saw the nice side of Iran, great. If you go to North Korea as a tourist I’m sure you don’t see the gulags or terrible poverty either. As a gay man, if I ever ventured into Iran I may be punished with public flogging or even execution. And death by hanging is not an in ‘theory’ punishment – it happens, Google it. Of course I will judge that, or am I being intolerant of their culture?
I have to say your piece made me really angry at how condescending it is. You state “Instead of religious fundamentalists, secret police and a land of suspicion I found some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met.” You were a rich tourist who went there as part of a tour group, of course you are not going to be a victim of the state apparatus! You are so breathtakingly naive and an apologist for a regime that kills and jails its own people for simple dissent or breaking Sharia law. I suggest you educate yourself to the reality of what happens behind closed doors (or in public, away from the gaze of tour groups) to so many Iranians who do not toe the line by checking the Amnesty International website @ https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/middle-east-and-north-africa/iran/report-iran/ .
Amnesty’s summary of Iran for 2017/2018 is:
“The authorities heavily suppressed the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, as well as freedom of religion and belief, and imprisoned scores of individuals who voiced dissent. Trials were systematically unfair. Torture and other ill-treatment was widespread and committed with impunity. Floggings, amputations and other cruel punishments were carried out. The authorities endorsed pervasive discrimination and violence based on gender, political opinion, religious belief, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity. Hundreds of people were executed, some in public, and thousands remained on death row. They included people who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crime.”
What a wonderful, misunderstood and misjudged place it is!
As an Iranian who is living in Iran right now, I must say that like any other country Iran is not the heaven nor the hell. I read Ellie’s article and I am agree with you that her description about Iran is just from a tourist point of view but that is not far from reality, hospitality, specially about our guests is a big part of our culture, as we have a proverb which says “Guest is beloved by God”. you can find dozens of videos on YouTube from travelers who came to Iran (Even Americans, who was brainwashed the most to fear from the country).
Of course I as a citizen feel some uncomforts in my country, but most of them is related to economy which are brought up mostly by US sanctions and some corrupt politicians which are more careful about their packet rather than their people. These two facts are playing biggest part of the deal. Of course there are always some topics to argue with government like politics, social rights, freedom, etc. but the main fact is that more or less it is like any other country. changes are not fast enough but they are progressing. things are changing from time to time and you can not say all the things are same like 5 years ago.
Rules of political games are different in parts of the world. unfortunately I have to say political rules in Iran are not desirable yet. but as man who knows the history of his own country and its effects on the contemporary situation, I have to say that regarding numerous natural resources (Including Oil) and geopolitical capabilities of the country, Iran has been under heavily abuse of high powerful countries, which led to “conspiracy theory” vision of nowadays Iranian politics. So, Iranian politics culture is not matured enough yet to encounter to its counterparts in fully democratic way. In Iran, If you do not have serious political activity against the regime, you will not face harsh situations most of the time. Of course even in this topic reforms and changes are progressing but more slowly comparing to social topics.
what you mentioned from Iran Amnesty report are there in law books, but are not fully practical or there are some ways for it. for example, about your case, nobody will execute you for just being gay, but you don’t have to expose your homosexuality in any form. the rationality of Iran’s law says your sexual reference must be clear from your gender, so after having some legal procedures you have the right to transition your gender.
I don’t want to go every single detail here, but as a brief story, truth is far from what you see and hear in western propagandas about Iran.
Hi Masoud, thank you for sharing your perspective, it’s really great to hear the point of view of an Iranian here. For us, travel is about changing perceptions and discovering our shared connection with cultures around the world, and much less about international politics (especially given the current state of international politics…). We hope that more travellers will visit Iran and experience the warmth of Iranian hospitality for themselves!
Hi Gary, everyone has to make their own decision about what places they do and don’t want to visit, for their own reasons, and we respect that. Our main concern when we decide to visit a place is if our money is going to benefit the country (and population) of the place we are visiting, and if we are able to experience local culture – if not, we don’t go. North Korea is rather different from Iran from what I understand – in the former one is not able to wander freely at all and is watched at all times – in Iran we didn’t experience anything of the sort and could wander freely. We feel strongly that the role of travel is to bring us closer as humans with the people we meet everyday on our trips (regular people not politicians) – and frankly we feel that the world could do with much more of the hospitality and friendly warmth we encountered while travelling in Iran.
Hi Ellie. I did the same trip as you in 2014 and like you, I fell in love with the people, the sights and tastes. I loved it so much I went back last year and this time went Couchsurfing. What an amazing experience! I have made some friendships that I know will last forever. I constantly tell people to forget what they see on TV and go to see for themselves and experience the best travel destination on earth. After Iran, it’s hard to go anywhere else. Thanks for giving it a go and spreading the message
Hi Ellie Hi Josh and everyone
Thanks for your lovely reviews .
I am an Iranian who has lived most of his life in New York City and Toronto.
I have traveled all over the world extensively many times over.
I have been to almost everywhere even to North Pole and Arctic circle ( Alaska) and AMAZON JUNGLES of Peru and Brazil a few times and so many countries and numerous cities that are well known in the world, just to show you how extremely well traveled I am..
visit Iran 4 times a year just because I CRAVE for the LOVE & KINDNESS that I receive from my family and friends and average Iranian that I encounter when I am there.
I have seen many FANTASTIC & AMAZING and utterly Jaw dropping places outside of my ancestors homeland that rival the best of Iran but I have not seen or heard anything like selfless and sincere hospitality of Iranian people toward visitors from foreign lands or just another city in Iran.
Thanks for letting the world know who we are and breaking the stereotypes.
It is so hard for some people to separate reality from their MENTAL CONCEPTS shaped by media which only cares about ratings and thus fearful and awful fabrication mixed with half truth and HATE ( what sells to average Joe 6 packs )
There is no denying of abuse and shortcomings of Iranian people rights.
We are certainly not well represented by our current government/ syst
Hi Cyrus, thanks for your comment and it sounds like you have had some wonderful travel experiences! I agree with you that the hospitality and kindness of Iranians is hard to beat! Even in India our second home which as you know was once influenced a lot by Persian culture… I really hope that more travellers will continue to venture to Iran – especially given the current economic struggles – and discover for themselves the beauty of Iran and Iranian culture! Best wishes and happy travels.
My grandfather was from Tehran and I am desperate to visit myself. I have been slightly put off by people’s assumptions that as I am from the UK I will be imprisoned never to return to the UK. I have tried to explain to people that actually it is safe and that I would need a 24/7 tour guide and that this would help my safety in that I could not be accused of spying etc. Did you have any trouble getting in or out of their airport security? Did they quiz you or ask you anything?