Women traveling to Iran must adhere to a dress code that includes wearing a hijab and covering their arms and legs. // © 2017 Hope Smith
Feature image (above): Iran’s mountainous terrain provides travelers with the opportunity for adventure activities, such as trekking. // © 2017 iStock
As 2016 came to a close, Iran’s tourism industry was gearing up for one of its best years yet.
It had already received high marks as the next hot-ticket destination for U.S. travelers, with publications such as Bloomberg, GlobeTrender Magazine and Business Insider giving the country a nod on their “Where to Go in 2017” lists.
Suppliers also began to beef up their offerings — Abercrombie & Kent, SmarTours and Wilderness Travel all announced new Iran itineraries for 2017, for example — leaving advisors with no shortage of options for their more adventurous clientele.
But a 2017 travel ban that halts the arrival of Iranians to the U.S. has distressed the future of relations between the U.S. and Iran, leading some tour operators to delay or cancel upcoming departures.
Hope Smith, a travel advisor with Born to Travel, recently returned from a 22-day trip to Iran with tour operator MIR Corporation. Although it remains to be seen how travel to Iran will change in the coming months, she makes her case for why the former Persian Empire should remain on a client’s bucket list.
What most surprised you about visiting Iran?
I was most surprised by the grace of the people. They embraced me with open arms while expressing sincere friendship and curiosity. The country — at least as experienced on my agenda — was clean and safe.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about traveling there?
The Iran that I experienced was not two-dimensional, as it’s often portrayed in the media. The real Iran is the flesh and blood of its people. While I was there, they personalized every encounter with questions such as, "Where are you from?” “Will you sit with us?” “Would you like some tea?” and “Will you share our picnic?” Finally, every conversation concluded with, "Thank you for visiting us."
What are some popular adventure options for tourists who choose to visit the country?
Given our history with the country, the fact is that just visiting Iran is an adventure for all Americans.
But the country is also a paradise for adventurers. The land itself offers a wide range of activities supported by ample infrastructure. There is hiking, mountain biking, climbing and winter skiing available, along with canyoneering in Eshkevar and trekking in the Alborz and Zagros mountains. I would compare them to the challenges of outdoor adventure in Utah or the Dolomites in Italy.
Now that you’re back, how will you bring what you’ve learned about Iran to your business?
Sharing my experiences with the diverse community of travel advisors, as well as my client base, has been astounding. I was easily able to share social media postings that created a buzz of anticipation, and I could respond to comments asking for more information in real time.
I especially loved the fact that many of the comments originated from Iranians, who, though long separated from Iran, loved the daily reports and photos.
What’s your advice to first-time travelers to Iran?
It is a big country. I spent three weeks and covered about 2,500 miles by both air and ground travel — so, plan to invest in a tour with a longer duration and use a reputable tour company that’s knowledgeable in the logistics of the visitors’ visa, accommodation options, transportation, unique sites and guides.
Travelers should also dress modestly. Women will wear head scarves, long-sleeve shirts and pants as well as mid-length jackets. Shorts are not allowed. It was so fun to recalibrate my travel fashion to these simple challenges; I think I did a great job.
What would you tell clients who may be debating a visit to Iran?
Experience has proven to me that I need to be open to my own reality. I independently embrace each country by recognizing their people, their history, their geography, their stories and their challenges.
Travel enriches travelers. Iran is a treasure.