As the Middle East’s worst-hit coronavirus victim, Iran has lost over 21,000 of its citizens since the pandemic began to ravage the country in late February. But the immense health crisis aside, the economic cost has proven devastating for the cash-strapped government. And among the sectors almost brought to its knees is tourism.
Priding itself on the glorious ancient Persian civilization, Iran is home to 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which have survived foreign invasions and natural disasters over centuries and continue to maintain their appeal to visitors.
But as is the case with many of the world’s pandemic-hit nations, Iran’s tourist attractions appear to have a long way to go before revisiting their once vibrant days, when tourists from across the world swarmed them. A series of official figures released by Ali-Asghar Mounesan, minister of cultural heritage, tourism and handicrafts, are more than telling of the grim situation.
The first three months of the Iranian calendar year (March 21-June 20), the period when the virus was making its way from one province to another, Iran received only 74 foreign tourists, according to Mounesan. In the same period last year, the country hosted some 2.6 million tourists. Due to the pandemic, the minister said, Iran’s tourism has collapsed to “near-zero levels."
By late July, a loss in tourism revenues was estimated at over half a billion dollars due to the pandemic. To help the sector get back on its feet, the government of President Hassan Rouhani from the very beginning promised to bail it out. However, according to Mounesan, so far not more than $7.7 million has been offered in the form of loans rather than aid packages to the affected private companies. “The bailout served merely as a fleeting painkiller,” the minister said.
An increasing number of people will have to bid farewell to their sources of income in the tourism industry due to the coronavirus crisis. One of those without a job now is Zhaleh, a 38-year-old guide who used to work for two travel agents in central Tehran. “First we were asked to do some remote work. But as time went on my bosses had to get rid of me and several other colleagues,” she told Al-Monitor. Only two months into the virus outbreak, the owners of the two companies found their business no longer viable. “One of the agencies I worked for is now entirely shut down. The other is working with only three out 17 staff members,” she added.
For years, Iranian tourism has been grappling with tremendous challenges, from Western sanctions to regional tensions. But the negative role played by mismanagement, most evidently in the form of financial neglect, has largely explained why the sector is crumbling.
Persepolis is Iran’s best-known monument, an astounding epitome of the glory of the Persian Empire. Despite its significant cultural and historical value, and the large number of tourists it attracts, the site of the ancient ruins in a vast area outside the southern city of Shiraz has been allocated the tiny amount of $217 from the latest annual state budget to run its maintenance and all other affairs for a period of one year. The disappointing share was lamented by the minister, who also noted that monument preservation projects rely for the most part on small public donations.
Prior to the pandemic, the tourism sector had exhibited signs that it was entering a period of prosperity. In 2019, it posted $11.7 billion in annual revenues, making up 2.8% of Iran’s gross domestic product.
Another charm of the Iranian culture and civilization — handmade carpets — does not seem to be in good shape either. Carpet weaving skills have been passed on from generation to generation, and it has provided Iran with one of few sources of non-oil income, hitting the $73 million mark in 2019 and claiming nearly 10% of the world’s total handmade carpet exports. Nevertheless, the pandemic has introduced a period of lackluster business, prompting workshop closures with the finished carpets piling up in warehouses.
At Tehran’s central traditional bazaar, Hamid and Hashem, both in their 50s, have been selling carpets since they were teenage apprentices in a family business inherited from their ancestors. “Not a single tourist these days!” Hamid said in an interview with Al-Monitor. “You have no idea how tragic it is to see the art and business of handmade carpets gradually die right before your eyes.”
Before the pandemic, the northwestern city of Mahabad delivered an annual 6,000 square meters of Kurdish carpets, internationally known for their diverse colors and stunning patterns. The carpet business is badly hit as the exports have almost entirely stopped. Due to the virus-triggered recession, the same is happening in other carpet-producing areas, including Esfahan in central Iran and Kerman in the southeast.
Mina, a single mother from the western city of Sanandaj, who has lived on her carpet weaving income for nearly a decade, can now hardly make ends meet. But what concerns her most, she told Al-Monitor, is not the income she has lost, but rather the existential threat posed by the pandemic to carpet weaving art as a whole. “I desperately hope that the end of the pandemic is announced before Iran's carpet weaving art vanishes into thin air,” she said.