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Iran’s visa waivers for 28 countries to unravel country’s huge tourism potential

By Maryam Qarehgozlou

While climbing the steep hill, each step became challenging, muscles got strained, the air grew thin, and breaths came short, yet the anticipation of reaching the summit fuelled adrenaline.

After climbing to the top, a beautiful sight unfolded in front of the eyes. Amid a verdant paradise, a castle emerged, nestled gracefully among the towering trees, alive with the vibrant colors of nature.

Roodkhan Castle, a prime tourist attraction in the stunning landscape of Iran’s northern Gilan province, stands as a powerful testament to the country’s rich cultural heritage and architecture.

This magnificent fortress, with its formidable stone walls, is perched atop a hill, overlooking the lush forests and cascading rivers that make Gilan a must-visit place for nature lovers.

The gentle whispers of the wind through the leaves, coupled with the tranquil melodies of nearby streams, create a symphony of serenity that permeates the air creating a harmonious blend of architectural marvels and natural wonders.

Iran is blessed with a rich historical heritage, awe-inspiring natural landscape and diverse ecosystems.

From ancient cities to stunning mountains and lush forests, the country offers a range of cultural, architectural and natural attractions, making it a must-visit destination for travelers. 

Due to a myriad of reasons, however, the full potential of the country’s tourism sector has not been fully tapped. That might change as people from 28 countries can now travel to Iran without a visa.

Visa-free travel for 28 countries

In a move aimed at giving a fillip to the country’s tourism sector, Iran has lifted visa rule for 28 countries, increasing the number of countries whose citizens can now visit Iran without a visa to 40.

Those recently added to the list include Persian Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait, in line with the Ebrahim Raesi government’s ‘neighborhood-friendly’ foreign policy that has reaped dividends.

Nationals from many Asian, African, Latin American and European countries can also avail of visa waivers now to experience the beauty of Iran – from the architectural wonders of Isfahan to the green meadows of Shiraz to the exotic beaches of Mazandaran and Gilan to the beautiful mausoleums of Mashhad and Qom.

The visa exemption applies to citizens from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tunisia, Mauritania, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Seychelles, Indonesia, Brunei, Japan, Singapore, Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, and Belarus to name a few.

As per the decision, Russians can only use the visa exemption if they are visiting the country in groups. For Indian passport holders, the waiver applies exclusively to those entering Iran by air.

Visitors from the 28 countries on the list may enter Iran every six months (twice a year) and stay for 15 days upon each entry, according to the decision that came into effect last Sunday.

The 15 days of stay cannot be extended under this new regulation and the exemption solely applies to those entering Iran for tourism purposes.

Iran’s Tourism Minister Ezzatollah Zarghami, in an announcement in December last year, said the government plans to cancel visas unilaterally for 33 countries.

“We want to open doors [to tourists] and let anyone travel to Iran,” Zarghami said at the time, adding that the move can help counter “anti-Iranian sentiment” and “propaganda peddled against Iran.”

According to Zarghami, the ministry is committed to introducing Iran’s tourism potential to the world.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kan’ani said during his weekly presser last week that the visa-free entry is proposed in line with the government’s policy of good neighborliness and strives to strengthen connections with countries that are friendly to Iran.

“We expect other countries to respond in kind and this would set the scene for Iranians to cultivate relations with people from other cultures,” Kan’ani noted.

Iran has already implemented reciprocal visa-free entry for citizens of Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Kazakhstan and tourists have been flocking from these countries.

Last month, Iran and Tajikistan reached a 30-day reciprocal visa-free agreement, but it was not revealed officially when the agreement will come into effect.

Message to the world

Moslem Shojaei, who presides over the Office for Foreign Tourism Marketing and Development at the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, Tourism, and Handicrafts, told the Press TV website that the new initiative aims to send a message to the world: “There is no problem with entering Iran.”

According to him, the visa exemption scheme is a “travel facilitation” and a key contributor to an increase in international tourist arrivals and can eventually stimulate the economic growth of the country.

“A reciprocal visa-free travel is ideal for any country, however, it is a complicated and time-consuming process,” Shojaei said about the decision to lift visa entry unilaterally.

“Iran has a rich culture and contains a vast diversity of ecosystems and is home to numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which could all attract tourists.”

The official said the number of outbound tourists, per-capita income, and populations of the countries were among the main factors for the tourism ministry in choosing them for lifting visa requirements.

Political stability of the countries as well as enjoying a healthy relationship with Iran were also factors taken into consideration while preparing the list, he stated.

“The initiative was first put forward by the Tourism Ministry, but of course, the administration’s foreign policy which favors fostering economic diplomacy and closer connections with allies and neighbors also factored in the decision to ease entry rules for tourists,” he said in a conversation with the Press TV website, noting that Africa as an emerging continent has been ignored for years.

In the Iranian calendar year of 1398 (March 2019-March 2020), Iran agreed to abolish visa requirements for Oman and China, Shojaei said, adding that the move resulted in a 20 to 30 percent increase in the number of Chinese and Omani passport holders’ entry to Iran.

“During some months, the number was even higher, unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic seriously impacted tourist arrivals to the country,” he said.

“Lifting the visa requirement is just a step to fuel a rise in inbound tourism, but for a long-term increase we have to make revival plans and implement policies to see a steady rise in tourist traffic.”

Iran’s tourism sector

In 2019, Iran set the record for highest tourist arrivals when some 9.1 million tourists visited the country, the tourism ministry official told the Press TV website.

According to the figures released by the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Iran was ranked the third fastest-growing tourism destination in the globe in 2019, with 27.9 percent annual growth.

UNWTO reported that Iran was the world’s second-fastest-growing tourist destination in 2018, with 49.9 percent growth in arrivals year on year.

Nonetheless, tourism was one of the sectors most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and tourist arrivals fell globally bringing the sector to a halt, and according to Shojaei Iran was not an exception.

“In 2020 and 2021, around 1 million tourists visited Iran,” he noted.

UNWTO said that between January and October 2020, the pandemic triggered a 70 percent decline in international tourist arrivals compared with the same period in 2019.

However, the sector is now recovering, Shojaei said, adding that in the calendar year 1401 (March 2022- March 2023) over 4.2 million tourists traveled to Iran.

“In the 10 months starting on March 2023, Iran’s tourist arrival saw a 52 percent rise compared to the corresponding period last year,” the official said.

So far, 5.4 million tourists visited Iran, the number is expected to increase to 6 million by the yearend (March 2024), he added, noting that most tourists visiting Iran are from regional and neighboring countries like Iraq, Armenia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, UAE, Turkey and Oman.

Where to visit in Iran

Iran is dotted with numerous iconic tourism sites like Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, located in Iran’s southern Fars province.

With its majestic ruins and intricate carvings, it stands as a testament to the grandeur of ancient Persia.

The ancient city of Isfahan in central Iran was the capital during the Safavid dynasty rule. The city is known today for its stunning Islamic architecture and intricate tilework.

Visitors can explore the majestic Naqsh-e Jahan Square, admire the mesmerizing beauty of the Imam Mosque, and stroll through the colorful bazaars, where centuries-old traditions come to life.

Iran’s natural landscapes with their vibrant flora and fauna provide a serene escape from the hustle and bustle of city life.

Mount Damavand, the highest peak in West Asia, stands tall at an elevation of 5,610 meters (18,406 feet) and is a popular destination for hikers and mountaineers.

The Hyrcanian forests, a vast area of dense, temperate forests located along the southern coast of the Caspian Sea, are one of the most ancient and diverse forest ecosystems in the world, dating back to the Tertiary period, around 50 million years ago.

They stretch from the southeastern corner of Azerbaijan, through northern Iran, and into western Turkmenistan, covering a total area of approximately 55,000 square kilometers.

In addition to their ecological significance, the Hyrcanian forests have cultural and historical importance. They feature on UNESCO World Heritage Site and are protected by national parks and reserves in Iran.

Iran also boasts stunning deserts, such as the Dasht-e Kavir and the Dasht-e Lut. The surreal and otherworldly landscapes include vast stretches of sand dunes and salt flats.

“I went to the Kavir desert close to the small town of Mesr. Walking a bit through the desert was absolutely stunning. So vast, so beautiful,” writes one social media user from Stuttgart, Germany on Tripadvisor, an online travel information and booking website.

“Definitely an experience I won’t forget. The small, sleepy village of Mesr is also quite nice to visit for at least an hour or two.”

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