Iran — home to the ancient Persian civilization and with 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites — has never ceased to attract tourists from around the world. In recent years, however, the country’s tourism industry has fallen into tatters largely due to tensions with the West, the United States in particular. Related economic sanctions and political pressures, as well as what Iranian officials describe as Iranophobia spearheaded by Western media, have combined to contribute to the decline of tourism in Iran. In spite of all this, the sector managed to stay afloat, if not thrive, in this land with endless wonders. A much-feared nightmare began to come true on Feb. 19, when Iranian officials announced the first deaths in the country from the evolving coronavirus outbreak. The timing couldn't have been worse.
The last month of the Persian calendar, which ends on March 21, is by any measure the most bustling and booming period for Iran's tourism sector because it culminates in Nowruz, the Persian New Year, a national two-week holiday. The entire country takes on a festive mood, marked by an elaborate set of rituals, family gatherings and travel.
As of Feb. 27, two weeks after the initial announcement of coronavirus deaths, the spread of the virus showed no sign of abating. Iran’s Health Ministry put the death toll at 26, with 245 people confirmed infected in at least 22 of the country's 31 provinces. This is not good news for Iran’s tourism sector, as time is not on its side in the run-up to the holidays.
“We have had no demand in the past few days and that has sent us all home,” said Ehsan (a pseudonym), a tour operator in the southern city of Shiraz, close to the well-known ancient site of Persepolis. “This month has always been our high season. We used to work extra hours well into the night, but now, we will be nearing collapse if the current circumstances drag on.”
According to official statements, some 80% of hotel reservations for the new year holidays in Shiraz have been canceled. This alarming figure has prompted the president of the city’s Association of Hotel Owners to warn of imminent bankruptcy for hotels and travel agents unless the government props them up in this moment of crisis.
Other popular destinations are faring no better. The Reformist newspaper Hamshahri reported Feb. 24 that 90% of hotels in the northeastern holy city of Mashhad, a major destination for Shiite pilgrims from neighboring countries, currently have no guests. Unsurprisingly, hotels in the city of Qom, where the virus began to spread, are entirely deserted, Hamshahri stated. Fears that the virus could spiral out of control have forced the closure of major monuments in several locations, including the central city of Kashan, home to the Tape Sialk archaeological site, which dates to the Neolithic era (10,000-4,500 BC).
Cash-strapped and already battling on multiple economic fronts, the Iranian government appears to be shrugging off demands for a tourist sector bailout. “There has been absolutely no aid or promise of a loan or anything that could salvage us,” Ehsan said. Instead, the government has issued a directive obligating travel agencies to refund all customers. Full refunds, according to Ehsan, could effectively put operators and airlines in the red. Travel is also being impacted by Iran's neighbors who have closed their borders to Iranian passengers due to concerns that the coronavirus might be exported to their soil.
“There is no doubt that the arrival of the coronavirus in the run-up to Nowruz holidays will deeply impact the number of journeys,” Hormatollah Rafiei, head of the Association of Iranian Travel Agents, told the media Feb. 22, admitting that the panic is keeping Iranian tourists indoors.
Maghsoud Asa’di Samani, secretary of the Association of Iranian Airlines, paints an even grimmer picture. He foresees redundancies in the aviation industry and the tourism sector in general, should the situation fail to soon improve.
Some Iranian tourism experts argue that the ground for a downward turn had been laid weeks before the coronavirus outbreak. Amir Dayani, an inbound tour operator and the Iran supervisor for the Madrid-based Oriente Viajes in Isfahan, traces the roots of the crisis to the US-Iran confrontation in early January that nearly led to all-out war.
“The assassination of Major-General Qasem Soleimani by American drones, followed by the retaliatory Iranian missile attacks and finally the plane crash outside Tehran had already dealt a huge blow to the flow of inbound tours to Iran,” Dayani told Al-Monitor. The former journalist, who has been receiving Spanish-speaking group tours for several years, contends that such fast-paced developments imposed “a halt” on Iran’s tourism industry.
Amid regional tensions, Iranian travel agents kept their businesses afloat by promoting tours for domestic travelers. Given that the depreciation of the Iranian rial from US sanctions has lightened the pockets of the middle class, thus making domestic trips a more attractive option compared to foreign tours, this approach could have served as an effective short-term remedy if not for the coronavirus epidemic.
Ehsan remarked, “Now rampantly traveling across our country, the coronavirus could be the coup de grace. The virus, I’m worried, may effectively kill our already ailing tourism sector.”