Perspectives on Rural Tourism in Iran


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Perspectives on Rural Tourism in Iran

  1. 1. Denae EagenDr. Anne RichardsPRWR 790011December 2011 Rural Tourism in Iran As Irancontinues to urbanize rapidly, it also promotes domestic and international tourism,often to rural areas. Indeed, international and Iranian travel agencies offer rural, nomadic, andagricultural tours that are gaining a foothold in the tourism industry, and several internationaltravel agencies offer small group tours that focus on Iranian villages settled outside the majorcities. Cultivating sustainable tourism in nonurban settings requires a balance between progressand preservation that will yield a positive experience for both indigenous peoples and tourists. Typically, interactions between tourists and locals are the substance of rural tourism inIran, as around the world. Aref, F. and Gill define rural tourism as “any form of tourism thatshowcases the rural life, art, culture, and heritage at rural locations, thereby benefiting the localcommunity economically and socially as well as enabling interaction between the tourists andthe locals for a more enriching tourism experience” (Aref, F., 2009).Tourists do not miss heritagesites or museums by taking the rougher path; rather, prime tourist sites are included in the toursalthough guides often take a different approach to the tour that blends the cultural past and livingpresent. For instance, tourists are guided through the daily lives of different local communities,exploring bazaars in Tehran one evening and sleeping beneath tents next to a nomadic tribe thenext. Local artisansinvite tourists to witness handicraft and agricultural processes, from silk 1
  2. 2. weaving to herb preparation.Rural tourism can provide a secondary source of funding for an arealosing profitability. Yet rural tourism is often underdeveloped and Iran has limited experiencemanaging rural tourism due to “insufficient infrastructure and preparation” (Aref, F., 2009). Anumber of factors can strengthen the development of rural tourism including legitimatecommunity power, effective rural cooperatives, and diverse private investments. Yet these potential sources of strength are restricted by the fact that, currently, ruraltourism is subject to the whim of the Iranian government in terms of both funding and stability.The Iranian government, despite its generous commitment to developing tourism, acts as solearbiter on distribution of resources and investments without consulting the local population(Aref, A., 2011).The lack of active participation or influence by local community membershinders the success of rural tourism, and relying on the government alone for funding leavesvillages without recourse if they are not chosen as an investment or if projects funded areinadequate. In addition, political upheaval, although often removed from the remote locations of ruraltourisms, has a significant impact on international tourism overall. According to Mohammadi etal, “The tourism industry of Iran was badly affected by political crises and war, such as theIslamic Revolution of Iran in 1978 and the imposed Iran-Iraq war” (2010).Baum and O‟Gormansecond this impact, consulting Iran Touring and Tourism Organization data from 2001 thatshowed “from immediately after the revolution the number of international tourists fell from680,000 in 1978 to a low of 9,300 in 1990” (2010).By 1999, Iran claimed an increase in tourismto “1.3 million international visitors and 32.5 million domestic tourists.” The number ofinternational visitors increased again to 1.6 million in 2004 (Baum, 2010). Yet that increase inforeign tourists was likely diminished by a succession of negative media coverage following 2
  3. 3. isolated incidents of kidnapping, harassment, and intimidation from 1999 to 2003(Baum, 2010).Such precise numbers are difficult to locate for 2009, when Iran experienced waves of protestsamid allegations of fraudulent election results, protests which quickly evolved into cries for civilrights reform deemed The Green Movement. The lack of firm data suggests a gap in researchregarding the effects of the 2009 electoral protests and its aftershockson rural tourism in Iran.This article aims to explore the influences on rural tourism and how the Green Movement mayhave affected both the locations and the perceptions of tourists. The article will review the significant influences on rural tourism including benefits,barriers, and the role of rural cooperatives and government investment, as well as aspects of ruraltourism such as tours, attractions, and accommodations for tourists.Methods Research on rural tourism in Iran consisted of internet searches using the Google searchengine, Google Scholar, Ebsco Host, and LexisNexis. All four resources allowed me to search bykeyword or keyword phrase and a date range. My searches began with tourism agency websitesoffering rural tours in Iran and international government travel warnings, and then branched outto blogs and articles on personal experiences of travel in rural Iran. Google Scholar and EbscoHost provided access to published theses and international conference proceedings on the Iraniantourism industry. LexisNexis revealed detailed news releases of recent events and governmentcollaborations with international and domestic investors. I searched for information under a variety of keywords including: tourism in Iran, travel inIran, Iran rural tourism, Iran sustainable tourism, Iran community tourism, Iran ruralcooperatives, Iran tourism development, poverty alleviation through tourism, Iran rural tour, Iran 3
  4. 4. tour agency, and Iran nomadic tribes. To clarify the historical and recent context of rural tourism,my research results were derived from five distinct periods, using the 2009 Iranian electionprotests as a significant event marker: Phase One: 10 years prior to the 2009 Iranian election protests on 6/13/2009 Phase Two: 24-12 months prior, 6/13/2007-6/13/2008 Phase Three: 11-6 months prior, 7/13/2008-11/13/2008 Phase Four: 6 months prior, 12/13/2008-6/12/2009 Phase Five: Iranian Election Protests and 6 months after, 6/13/2009-12/13/2009Benefits of Rural Tourism Among the many benefits of rural tourism are opportunities for employment andalleviation of poverty. The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)“remainsfirmly convinced that the sale of handcrafts to tourists can foster the continuity of local traditionsand contribute significantly to poverty alleviation, through its ability to create jobs, socio-economic opportunities, and an enhanced quality of life in local communities” (2006, p.ix).Inaddition to higher sales of handicrafts, a regular influx of tourists generates a need for skilledlabor as guides, and as service, transportation, and restaurant personnel. Steady employmentenriches the life of the villages; more inhabitants are able to stay in their local community andare no longer forced to immigrate to find work.One major tool for rural tourism development arerural cooperatives, “voluntary business associations formed by people of limited means througha contributions of share capital that forms the basis of sharing out the profits that accrue from thebusiness” (Aref, A., 2011). The intent of rural cooperatives are to improve people‟s ability toparticipate in community decisions and access to information, “training and markets and the 4
  5. 5. other productivity resources for income generation such as land, technology, credit andinformation” (Aref, A., 2011). However, a study by Aref, A. questions the effectiveness of poverty alleviation throughrural cooperatives because the cooperatives rely too heavily on the government for funding anddecision-making (2011). Thus, local residents are disconnected from community goals andunable to perceive the importance or benefits of rural cooperatives and cannot fully commit tocommunity projects. The study cited “lack of resources, lack of collaboration culture, lack ofcooperatives leaders‟ knowledge, depend[ence] of cooperatives to government” as importantbarriers to poverty alleviation through rural cooperatives, and by rural extension tourismdevelopment.This separation between government and people hinders cooperation and Aref, A.argues that active participation by residents is necessary in order for them to act as stakeholdersin rural tourism and make progress in improving their social and economic position (2011).Barriers to Tourism There are significant barriers to rural tourism that inhibitresidents of villages and citiesfrom fully realizing the potential of tourism. Reflecting the difficulty of aligning the goals oflocal residents and the government, community power remains a barrier to rural development.Aref, F. defines community power as “the ability to create or resist change regarding community,influence across a variety of domains or community contexts, ability to act to make or resistchanges that affect the community‟s environment, and autonomy in decision-making(2011).Community power is particularly important in rural tourism where outside influences canhave a lasting positive or negative impact on a delicate environment. The ability to resist changeas a rural community may be as vital as the ability to enact change. 5
  6. 6. Egbali et al describe three critical issues of rural tourism: First, although visitors are attracted to rural areas by their distinctive regional social and cultural heritage landscape qualities and perceived cleaner environment these very may be threatened by the impacts of tourism and recreational activity. Second, training for rural tourism provision is often not available or not taken up to assist improvement in the quality and appropriateness of rural tourism products. Third rural tourism products can be relatively isolated and in most cases will benefit from collaboration and networking in promotion and marketing. (2010).Community empowerment is vitally important for rural tourism to preserve the livelihood of itsresidents while encouraging tourism. A balance between improvements and preservation of thetraditions, environment, and resources yields a constructive experience for both resident andtourist. Aref, F. offers findings from a study on community power in Shiraz, a hub for ruraltourism in southern Iran, that illustrate the current weak status of community participation. The“findings show that . . . there is an individual motivation for more collaboration in tourismdevelopment, but there is a low level of converging vision between individuals and localorganizations towards tourism development” (Aref, F., 2011). The results of this study furtheriterate the difficulty of rural development when residents are unable to influence governmentdecisions and unable to effectively preserve tourism attraction. Additional barriers to rural tourism development include capacity and infrastructure.Primarilythere is a lack of capacity to house and feed tourists, and existing facilities are not ofsufficient quality to encourage tourists to visit. Lack of acceptable transportation and roads areobstacles for tourists wishing to visit rural locations (Aref, F., 2009). Because the perceived 6
  7. 7. potential of a rural area as a tourist destination is a factor in attracting investors and governmentsupport,the Iranian government has made significant efforts to foster international and domestictourism and investments in the last several years. With assistance from government departmentsand private investors, select villages have been able to upgrade facilities, build new businesses,and improve the appearance of villages with gardens and parks. Rural cooperatives betweenneighboring provinces are a popular means of development for local areas in Iran, especiallyinimproving transportation networks and accessibility between villages and cities.Rural Cooperatives and Government Investment While the Iranian government is in certain ways supporting the growth of tourism in thenation‟s rural areas, the progress is often inefficient and the sources of support can be fickle.Government goals for tourism and development often fail to consider the needs of locals andneglect to connect “rural cooperatives with the rural tourism in those cities in which tourism is ina boom” (Aref, F., 2009). Iran‟s overarching tourism body, the Iran Cultural Heritage,Handicrafts, and Tourism Organization (ICHHTO), is under government control, and its stabilityis susceptible to the political unrest of the area (Baum, 2010). The necessity of blending culturaltraditions with Western presentations to entice investors creates delicate situations, which, if nothandled appropriately, can result in conflict between ICHHTO andIran‟s religious clerics. InNovember 2008, deputy for investment affairs Mahdi Jahangiri was forced to resign after clericsdenounced ICHHTO for its presentation of a traditional religious ceremony at its annualinvestment conference in which women moved rhythmically around a Qur‟an(BBC,2008).Significant political events, such as the 2009 Iranian election protests, may also have hadripple effects on the successes or hardships of rural tourism. 7
  8. 8. ToursInternational and Iranian tour agencies have diverse labels for rural tourism: ecotourism,agricultural tourism, adventure tourism, nomadic tourism, and so on. Yet the available rural tourpackages follow similar destinations. Trips usually last 15–23 days and include groups of four ormore people. According to Mohammadi et al, the “peak seasons for domestic tourists are usuallyduring the NowRuz (Iranian New Year) period, spring, summer, and other public holidays.International tourists visit the area throughout the year and their visits are mainly organized bytour operators” (2010). Iranian regulations require that foreign visitors are accompanied by aguide at all times (Peterson, 1998).The following travel agencies offer rural tours in Iran: Iran Traveling Lotus Iran Gasht Tour Wild Frontiers Revealing Persia.Rural tour groups commonly migrate between Tehran, Esfahan, and Shiraz, three major citiesaligned north to south through central Iran. These cities are home to multiple world heritage sitesincluding Meidan Emam in Esfahan and the Persian Garden and Persepolis near Shiraz(UNESCO, 2011). Rural tourism hotspots are located in the areas surrounding each city.Accommodations & Transportation Rural villages still lack the capacity to accommodate tourists fully and so most tourgroups spend the nights in hotels in Tehran or Shiraz and travel during the daytime. The majority 8
  9. 9. of rural tour groups spend at least two nights sleeping at a rural destination, often in tentsalongside a nomadic tribe. Tour guides arrange all major transportation for the tour groups,alleviating the difficulty of arranging personal transportation between cities.Handicrafts & AgricultureAccording to the proceedings of the International Conference on Tourism and Handicraft (2006), [Iran] has one of the richest, oldest and most diverse handcraft traditions in the world. Skills have been passed on for generations, stretching way back into ancient Persian history, with some artifacts having been found dating from the 5th Millennium B.C. Ceramics, metallurgy, glass, wood, architecture, carpets, tapestries – in all these areas, the artisans of Iran are justifiably world famous. (p. vii)The experience of seeing traditional handicraft first-hand encourages tourists to purchase localgoods, stimulating the local economy and often provoking reflection about the local culture,people, and history. Such basic interchanges of understanding and reciprocation are pivotal tointercultural acceptance. Positive exchanges with local residents are meaningful for both parties.Vendors gain skill in interacting with foreign or domestic tourists, increasing the chance thatfuture sales will also be successful. Tourists immerse themselves in the culture, art, and peoplethrough the experience and have a story and a treasure with which to return home. Because thehandicraft may have lasting beauty and the power to inspire curiosity in those who see it backhome, the tourist has the opportunity to recount the tale of the handicraft‟s origin and acquisition.Each rural tour package focuses on several aspects of agriculture and handicraft, including one ormore of the following experiences: 9
  10. 10. Tehran carpets, glass & ceramics Damavand medical herbs Firouz Abad herb juice workshops NourAbad mamasani local herbs Kashan water rose processing Lahijan tea plantation and cookies Lagoon of Anzali fish and fruit market, caviar processing factory.Nomadic TribesThe Qashqai tribe is the nomadic group most prevalently featured in rural tours. “The Qashqaicompose a community of settled, semi-settled, and pastoral nomadic households who residemainly in the Fars region of southern Iran. They speak Qashqai Turki (Turkish). Most of themalso speak, at least, Persian (Farsi). They are Shia Muslims” (, 2009).The Qashqaitribe can be located in Zagros during the summers and further south along the Persian Gulf in thewinter. Tour groups frequently visit the remaining nomadic families in the iconic black goatskintents and glean a taste of the nomadic life by trying the foods and witnessing the carpet weavingand livestock tending that makes up much of the Qashqai daily life. Today many Qashqai havebecome settled or semi-settled in Shiraz and surrounding cities. In September 2009, Jini Reddyof The Guardianexplored rural Iran with the Wild Frontiers tour agency. Reddy offers arefreshingly positive reflection on her experiences in Iran, particularly her visit with both asettled Qashqai family and a nomadic Qashqai family. Comparing the domiciles of the twofamilies, Reddy describes the settled home as “eclectic . . . rooms are lined with ruby red woolenrugs weaved by the Qashqai, its two bathrooms have western loos and showers, while goats andchickens live in a garden pen surrounded by a tangle of grapevines, apple and cherry trees” 10
  11. 11. (2009). Alternatively, Reddy describes her visit to the black tents of the Qashqai, remarking onthe distinctive women “in their colourful headscarves, shirts and skirts over black leggings.Shyly, they welcomed us into their goatskin tent for sweetened tea and almonds. We gave them abox of sweets and sprawled on the woven rugs and cushions around a central fire pit” (Reddy,2009).Perceptions of Travel in Iran Such positive and authentic views from travelers who have explored Iran are notuncommon. An American student visited in 1998, saying, “I never felt threatened or unsafe frompeople. It‟s one of the safest countries in the world, more than anywhere in the West” (Peterson).However, global perceptions are tainted by political unrest and violence. The United Statescontinues toissue clear travel warnings to avoid entering Iran and Westerners may find it difficultto obtain visas (U.S. Department of State). The negative perception regarding travel to Iran isperhaps best seen on forums, where it is important to draw a distinction between generalperception and personal experience. Students seeking public opinions on whether or not it‟s safeto travel to Iran at are met with an overwhelmingly negative response.Other forums and websites give a milder, but equally deterring, caution for travelers to postponetrips to Iran until the U.S. Department of State removes its travel warnings. Non-Western international travelers may have an easier time obtaining visas.Additionally, they may face less negative sentiment when deciding to travel to Iran. Despiteshaky relations with the United States and other Western countries, the Iranian government istaking strides to ease mutual travel restrictions between China, South Korea, Lebanon, India,Pakistan, and Egypt in order to promote tourism. 11
  12. 12. Effects of 2009 Iranian Election Protests on Rural Tourism For better or worse, perceptions of Iran have been irrevocably altered by the images andpassionate voices of the Green Movement.Videos of peaceful protests disintegrating into violentriots after confrontations with police forces and Basij Militia are unquestionable proof of the willof a people and the chaos created when there is a schism between a people and its government.Maps of the early protests in June 2009 illustrate large gatherings, police intervention, andviolence. YouTube videos show protests in Shiraz, Esfahan, and Tehran, the primary hubs forrural tourists. Foreign tourists in Iran at the time would have had difficulty avoiding the presenceof the election protests. The risk of violence was not isolated to people in the throng ofprotesters. As evidenced in the death of Neda Adgha-Soltan, a by-stander whowas reportedlyshot while standing outside her car on the fringes of the protesters, there was no clear area ofsafetyduring the protests (Chua-Eoan, 2009). Yet outside of the main cities, where rural tourism predominantly occurs, tourists wouldhave been less affected by the election protests. Those tourists visiting the nomadic tribes,historically ambivalent to Iranian politics, would have had little cause for concern. The mostsignificant impact for tourists comes from the perception of crisis and the fear of future clashes.The fears are not entirely unfounded. Incidents of intimidation, harassment, and violencecontinue to occur sporadically. On December 2, 2011, hundreds of protestors stormed the Britishembassy in Tehran, further straining the pressures of foreign tourism (BBC). Perhaps the most significant impact on rural tourism, however, is the uncertainty betweenthe Iranian people and the Iranian government. The disconnect between the visions and goals ofboth parties echo through the reviews of tourism and the difficulty of developing rural areas. A 12
  13. 13. lack of communication and willingness to delegate power is having a visible impact on thesuccess or failure of rural cooperatives and local tourism projects. Until such openness isachieved, rural tourism in Iran will continue to face challenges and endure a slowed growth. 13
  14. 14. Works CitedAref, A. (2011). Rural Cooperatives for Poverty Alleviation in Iran. Life Science Journal, 8. Retrieved from, F. (2011, March). Community Power in Process of Tourism Development: A Case Study of Shiraz, Iran. International Journal of Academic Research, 3. Retrieved from, F., & Gill S.S. (2009). Rural Tourism Development Through Rural Cooperatives. Nature and Science. Retrieved from, T.G., & O‟Gorman, K.D. (2010) Iran or Persia: What‟s in a name, the decline and fall of a tourism industry? Strathprints Institutional Repository. Retrieved from NEWS UK. (2011, December 2). Attack on UK embassy in Iran „had support of the state.‟ Retrieved from Worldwide Monitoring. (2008, November 15). Iran Official Resigns After Cleric Outrage. Fars News Agency. Retrieved from www.lexisnexis.comChua-Eoan, H. (2009, June 21). What the World Didn‟t See in Tehran. Retrieved from,8599,1906040,00.htmlEgbali, N., & Nosrat, A.B., & Ali pour, S.k.S. (2010, September 16). Effects of Positive and Negative Rural Tourism (Case Study: Rural Semnan Province). Journal of Geography and Rural Planning, 4. Retrieved from 14
  15. 15. Mohammadi, M. & Khalifah, Z., & Hosseini, H. (2010, November). Local People Perceptions toward Social, Economic, and Environmental Impacts of Tourism in Kermansah (Iran). Asian Social Science, 6. Retrieved from (2007, April 7). Is It Safe to Travel to Iran? Retrieved from, S. (1998, June 29). For „Trip of a Lifetime,‟ American Try Sunny…Iran? Christian Science Monitor, 90. Retrieved from www.EBSCOhost.comReddy, J. (2009, September 11). On the Road in Rural Iran. The Guardian. Retrieved from Department of State. (2011, October 21). Iran Travel Warning. Retrieved from nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. (2011). Islamic Republic of Iran. Retrieved from Tourism Organization. (2006, May 15). Tourism and Handicrafts: A Report on the International Conference on Tourism and Handicrafts. Retrieved from A8/0164/C741/080303_tourism_handicrafts_tehran_excerpt.pdfXarene. (2009, June 24). 24 June 2009 Tehran Election Protests. Retrieved from msid=117906582584758838973.00046d0d60d6c654332d8 15