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Rare wildlife and dramatic canyons attracted a steady stream of travelers to Mina Fatemi Sadr’s hotel on Iran’s Qeshm island each Persian New Year holiday. Then it got its biggest break courtesy of Donald Trump.
His decision in May to reimpose U.S. sanctions led to a collapse in the rial currency that’s sapped Iranians’ spending power, forcing many to abandon the idea of expensive overseas trips. While the resulting runaway prices and shortages are causing hardship for poorer Iranians, it’s boom time on dolphin-shaped Qeshm in the Gulf.
“We were at full capacity last year, too, at Norouz,” Fatemi Sadr said, referring to Iran’s new year that starts in late March. This year, though, the rooms, flats and villas at her Fulton complex started filling up as the weather cooled around November and there’s been a 30 percent increase over the period from a year ago. It’s a similar picture all over the island, she said.
Home to a free-trade zone specializing in discounted electronics and clothes, Qeshm was touted as a potential beneficiary after Iran signed a 2015 deal with world powers that lifted most economic penalties in return for caps on the country’s nuclear program. A local official said in 2016 that Japanese, Chinese and Russian banks were interested in opening offices on the island as excitement grew over the opening up of an Iranian market of 80 million people.
Trump’s anti-Iran drive put paid to those hopes, but tourism is providing a silver lining.
Among Qeshm’s attractions are the exotically named Valley of Stars with its gorges and canyons, mangrove forests peppered with egrets, and fishing villages spread along sandy beaches. They have for years lured a smattering of local travelers and a few adventurous foreigners. The Lonely Planet guide to Iran refers to Qeshm as “bliss for nature-lovers” and in 2017 it became a UNESCO Global Geopark.
Its sights may not be as appealing to middle-class Iranians who in recent years favored new year destinations such as Turkey, Dubai, Thailand and Malaysia — but they’re affordable and within easier reach. Major carriers Air France-KLM Group and British Airways suspended services to Iran last year, citing the reduced commercial viability of the routes in the wake of U.S. sanctions. Low-cost carrier flydubai has also canceled its Tehran route.
Vali Teymouri, deputy director for tourism affairs at the Cultural Heritage, Handicraft and Tourism Organization, said travel agencies have registered a 60 percent drop in international tour packages and officials have sought to promote domestic tourism instead. Iran’s Hotel Association says southern regions like Qeshm, Kerman and the more commercialized Kish islands in the Gulf are more popular this year.
Hamzeh Mohammadi’s small Asmari hotel a few hundred meters from a beach on Qeshm is full, with reservations up 40 percent from last year.
“It became clear in the winter that there are more travelers,” he said, arriving from as far afield as Tehran and the northern cities of Tabriz and Mashhad. “There are more visitors coming for tourism but less people who come to shop.”
Others are just staying at home. A nationwide survey by the Donya-e-Eqtesad newspaper of 3,545 Iranians showed 40 percent had no travel plans for Norouz. Another 45 percent said they would travel domestically, while two percent planned to go abroad at low cost.
Haleh used to live frugally so she could afford to sign up for a Norouz package tour to destinations that included Russia, India and South Africa. This year, she’s turning back the clock with a new year from her Tehran childhood.
“You visited relatives at their home,” she said. “You sat down and just talked about life.”
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.