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Iran to lift visa restrictions to revive pandemic-hit tourism sector

Iran’s new tourism chief said the government will soon scrap visa restrictions, a plan that the struggling tourism sector has been desperately waiting for to get back on its feet amid the coronavirus pandemic.
An incoming passenger crosses with his luggage through a disinfection tunnel upon arriving on an Emirates flight at the Iranian capital Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport on July 17, 2020.

“The spring of tourism [is coming],” wrote the government-run Iran newspaper Sept. 21, reporting on a ceremony in which conservative politician Ezzatollah Zarghami was sworn in as Iran’s new minister of cultural heritage, tourism and handicrafts.

Zarghami told the event that following his conversations with hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi, Iran plans to lift visa restrictions to help the severely hit tourism industry. Zarghami did not specify the date upon which those regulations would be scrapped. But several Iranian media outlets reported that twice-vaccinated foreign travelers would be embraced under the updated regulations.

The announcement came as Iran’s Health Ministry is reporting progress toward curbing a stubborn fifth wave of the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen daily mortalities of up to 700 in recent weeks. As of Sept. 21, the figure dropped to below 400 as the government boasted about its once lethargic vaccination rollout now gathering pace and reaching half of its population of 85 million.

Since April 2020, amid the raging pandemic, Iran’s Coronavirus Taskforce under former President Hassan Rouhani introduced a strict visa regime, suspending all tourism-related entries and allowing visitors solely for medical, business and academic purposes.

With those restrictions in place, all businesses across the tourism sector — from travel agents and hotels to transport companies and restaurants — have been in the red, some reporting bankruptcy and closures, with thousands of redundant staff members thrust into the unemployed community. Leading companies in the sector have relentlessly urged the national task force to ease at least partly some of those rules, but to no avail.

Multiple estimates have been released on the extent of pandemic-triggered loss incurred by Iranian tourism. Only months into the outbreak, Zarghami’s predecessor, Ali Asghar Mounesan, lamented the “near-zero level” nosedive of the sector, which came as little surprise as the country was and remains the Middle East’s worst COVID-hit nation.

Nevertheless, even before the pandemic, Iran’s tourism was already grappling with challenges, on top of them international sanctions. And Iranian officials have blamed much of the tourism industry’s failures on what they believe is Western “media propaganda” aimed at scaring travelers away from the country.

In the past 43 years, the Islamic Republic’s relationship with the Western world has been characterized by one collision course after another. The autocratic establishment has also detained nationals from those countries upon entry or exit over “espionage,” among other accusations.

The multiple phases of friction with the outside world have thus triggered travel safety warnings by the United States, the United Kingdom and a few other Western governments for their nationals. Such guidelines, according to Iranian tourism industry actors, have dramatically reduced the number of enthusiastic travelers who have been keeping Iran — home to 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites — on their list of countries to visit.