As antagonism intensifies between the Trump administration and Iran, some American tourists are rethinking plans to visit the country. Barring the start of military activity, tour operators say Iran is a safe and hospitable destination even for U.S. visitors.
As relations between the U.S. and Iran grow ever-more contentious, even rising to the threat of war, travel companies report that demand among Americans for Iran tours, which had been growing, is plummeting and that some have cancelled plans for upcoming visits.
Still, demand from elsewhere around the world seems to be rising.
“We’re used to getting questions on politics and safety, but this time frame seems more serious than what we’ve been through before,” said Janet Moore, owner of Distant Horizons, which has offered customized tours to Iran for over 20 years. “People are worried about the rhetoric from (President) Trump and (national security advisor John) Bolton. They don’t want to be anywhere where there’s military activity.”
With an Iran tour scheduled for September, Moore said she’s uncertain whether the trip will actually go forward.
“Because the process of getting visas to Iran is so time-consuming, we’ve initiated the process,” she said. “However, we want to assess the situation. We’re telling people to hold tight and let’s see what happens over the next two weeks.”
Journeys International, which has offered Iran tours since 2015, has seen interest fall off sharply among its clientele, which is primarily from the U.S., during the past month, said President Robin Pollak.
“People have really started to get skittish,” she said. “We’re not getting new sign-ups and most of our American travelers have pulled out and are making alternative plans. While people feel Iran is probably still safe, they also feel it’s something they can do later when things calm down.”
At G Adventures, which offers a 14-day Iran itinerary, bookings among American travelers has fallen by 14 percent this year, said communications director Kim McCabe. At the same time, she noted that bookings from non-U.S. travelers increased by about that same amount.
“Global visitor interest in Iran seems to be modestly growing,” she said.
Australia-based Intrepid Travel, which offers five Iran itineraries that include a new women’s only tour, is not experiencing cancellations or falling demand, according to Jenny Gray, global product and operations manager.
“We have had a few customers contact us about the current situation in Iran, but these requests are mostly from travelers looking to clarify whether a trip is going ahead, rather than requesting to cancel,” she said.
Is it safe for Americans to visit Iran? Officially, it’s not. The U.S. State Department, which has had a travel advisory against Iran since 1979, cites “the risk of kidnapping, arrest and detention of U.S. citizens.”
The tour operators who spoke with Skift strongly disagree, maintaining that Iran has proven to be a safe and remarkably hospitable place for travelers, including Americans. The biggest obstacle they see is the widespread perception that the country is not safe or that visitors will be met with hostility.
“It is a country that is often portrayed as unwelcoming, but the reality is quite the opposite,” Gray said. “Iranians are warm, friendly and eager to show off their country to foreigners. The feedback from our travelers is a testament to this.”
Pollak said that Iran’s rigorous visa policy for Americans, a lengthy process that vets applicants and requires proof of having booked an authorized tour, helps ensure a safe experience.
“Once they’ve been approved for entry, people are welcomed warmly—we’ve never encountered a problem or even a cold shoulder,” she said. “People in Iran are very curious about visitors from a culture that is off-limits to them. They understand that American visitors do not reflect the way America is portrayed to them by their government.”
While Americans comprise less than 1 percent of the 6.5 million international visitors to Iran each year, according to the U.N. World Tourism Organization, interest had been gaining steady momentum. The number of U.S. travelers to Iran grew by 62 percent between 2014 and 2016, according to the organization.
“Demand for Iran has been a real up and down situation,” Moore said. “Four years ago it was at a high point. Then we ran into problems in 2017 when Trump announced the travel ban on Muslims. Some people cancelled travel plans to Iran because they feared Iran would stop issuing visas or that they would be met with antagonism.”
Despite setbacks, the tour operators are optimistic about long-term growth in tourism to Iran, which in recent years has stepped up efforts to increase international visitation and has the stated goal of attracting 20 million annual visitors by 2025. While citizens from the U.S., Canada and the UK need to apply for visas in advance, Iran has steadily expanded the number of countries, including many in Europe and the Middle East, whose nationals can get visas on arrival.
“The Iranians are very committed to growing tourism and I think there’s great potential even from the U.S., providing the dynamics between our two countries don’t go off the rails,” Pollak said. “In general, we’re seeing more interest in off-the-beaten path tourism and Iran fits right in that niche. It’s about stepping outside your comfort zone and seeing what the world can teach you.”
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Photo credit: Shown are tourists at the Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran. Iran is seeing increased tourism demand. Intrepid Travel