Iran does not top most lists of sustainable travel destinations, but the country’s isolation may have unwittingly made it a pillar of responsible tourism.
“Iran has not been McDonaldized yet,” said Jerry Dekker, a former humanities professor who has led over 30 cultural tours for Americans with Iran Traveler and lived there for 13 years. “There are no foreign companies; there are no foreign-owned hotels.”
Political tensions of the last half-century have protected the history-laden country from excessive foreign influence and incursion. Tour operators say this has kept tourism culturally authentic and environmentally friendly.
“Iran’s isolation has in some respects preserved the character of the natural and cultural resources, making it a more unique and less homogenous experience,” said Jim Sano, president of Geographic Expeditions, which has led Iran tours for over 15 years.
Visitors to Iran find echoes of one of the world’s oldest civilizations, as well as traditional food, locally made goods and a thriving national park system. Archaeological sites like Persepolis, the seat of the ancient Persian Empire, are well preserved and relatively non-commercialized, according to Dekker.
The isolation and lack of commercialization not only make for a unique experience for visitors, but have also protected the country from the detrimental effects of mass tourism. “Tourism can have a very negative effect, especially on countries that are developing,” said Dekker. “In Iran you have not had this.”
Although tourism would be an economic boon, Iran’s lack of dependence on the industry has helped it develop a self-sufficient economy and excel in sectors such as medicine, Dekker explained. “Iran has not become globalized in a negative way,” he added.
Although foreign tourism in Iran has declined in recent years, some American tour operators have seen an increase in visitors there over the past year. The State Department warns that travel is risky, but Americans are free to visit the country with a visa and a government-assigned guide.
If the political climate improves, tour operators predict that Iran’s cultural and archaeological treasures will draw many more visitors. It would be up to the government to ensure that tourism remains responsible.
“With a fairly nascent tourism industry, Iran has the opportunity to put safeguards in place to preserve the sites and culture and to make sure that Iranians benefit from jobs and businesses,” said Joan Russell, travel director for the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, which organizes trips to Iran. “However, Iran could go the route of Egypt, say, and potentially harm their archaeological sites with tour bus pollution, wear and tear from too many visitors, souvenirs made in China, and so on.” That scenario may not be unlikely if tourism accelerates.
“Quite honestly, at this point, it is difficult to imagine the Iranian government caring too much about responsible tourism,” said Janet Moore, president of Distant Horizons, which runs cultural tours to Iran for the World Affairs Council. “They are unlikely to seek advice on this issue, and this could definitely create problems if the number of travelers increases greatly.”
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