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Foreign visitors in Iran

The most up-to-date figures from the World Tourism Organization for the origin of visitors to Iran show that building up visitors from the Islamic and wider Asian world will have to start from a low base. Around three-quarters of those entering Iran in 1999 came from Europe. According to the New York Times, unlike most Americans who stopped visiting Iran after the Revolution, European tourists continued to visit the country in similar numbers after the revolution. It doesn’t mean American can’t travel to Iran, just that Americans must have a tour guide with them at all times, this law is also applicable for UK citizens and Canadians.

The majority of the 300,000 tourist visas granted in 2003 were obtained by Asian Muslims, who presumably intended to visit important pilgrimage sites in Mashhad and Qom. Several organized tours from Germany, France, the UK, and other European countries come to Iran annually to visit archaeological sites and monuments. Iran has 21 places on the world cultural heritage list, because of this lots of cultural tourist come to visit Iran each year.

According to Iranian officials about 1,659,000 foreign tourists visited Iran in 2004 – although government statistics don’t distinguish between tourism, business, and religious pilgrims; most came from Asian countries, including the republics of Central Asia, while a small share (about 10%) came from North America and the European Union, including Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, France, and Belgium. The most popular tourist destinations are Northern Iran, Isfahan, Mashhad, Yazd, and Shiraz. There is undoubtedly a great scope for increased visitors from the Islamic world, and possibly also from non-Muslim countries with which Iran is developing business and political links, such as China and India.

From 2004, the country experienced a 100-percent growth in foreign tourist arrivals until mid-2008 when the number of foreign arrivals surged up to 2.5 million. Especially, there has been an enormous increase in the number of German tourists traveling to Iran since 2008.

The World Travel and Tourism Council claims that business and personal tourism rose by 11.3% and 4.6%, respectively, in real terms in 2007, with the growth in personal tourism only modestly below that of the preceding year.

In 2011, most of Iran’s international visitors arrived in Iran solely for the purpose of leisure travel. Leisure tourists arriving from abroad are also often relatives of Iranian citizens or expatriates residing outside of Iran returning to visit. Another key segment of international arrival traffic is pilgrims come to pay a visit to one of the many holy sites scattered throughout the country.

The number of international arrivals has been steadily increasing, up from 2.2 million people in 2009 to 3.6 million in 2011, with per capita spending of $1,850 per visit on average.

Over five million tourists visited Iran in the fiscal year of 2014-2015, ending March 21, four percent more year-on-year


Comments from our travelers to Iran

  1. Hannah Long, Iranian-American

I would say that I’m a “foreign-looking” woman who has visited Iran extensively.

There are some layers to this question. I’m assuming “foreign-looking” here means outside of the norm of what people in Iran look like. The vast majority of people living in Iran are Iranian, followed by groups like Kurds, Afghanis, and Turks. These groups are all pretty similar in their ethnic/historical/cultural makeup. Like many non “western” countries, Iran is and looks quite ethnically homogenous.

Here’s where it gets tricky—what does it mean to “look” Iranian? The US census classifies Middle Eastern as white. In my experience, Iranians will be quick to tell you that they have Aryan roots (the word Iran is derived from Aryan, actually]). This insistence is unfortunate and a relic of the deep-rooted racism that exists in Iran (which is interestingly often directed toward Afghans, who are perhaps the most similar to Iranians). It’s also a nod at the cultural kinship many Persians feel towards white American/Europeans. However, this version of “Aryan” is different than the historically famous blonde-hair, blue-eyed one that comes to mind.

  1. Jim and I have traveled to Iran with Gwen and Bahman.   It was a fantastic trip!  Iranians love us!

–Retta (and Jim) – Passage Through Persian April 2010 (commented 4/22/18)

I loved my Iran trip and wanted to tell you that.

Words really can’t describe how much I loved my trip to Iran. I am fairly well-traveled but this may be my favorite trip thus far. Bahman Zenhari is indeed a guide and host par excellence and Iran is a country so varied and so historic that I fell in love with it. He knows everything so well that his logistics were outstanding, and he obviously loves his country and its history and culture. He is highly knowledgeable and I appreciate all of his work, including small surprises, such as seeing the Cinema Museum. In addition, everything was ready for us or found for us (an extra bag to carry home part of my treasures), taken care of for us, by our charming host, Bahman.

The sites that we saw were fascinating – and we saw everything on the itinerary plus some other things, like a quirky, cool little restaurant that was one of those hidden gems one would never find on one’s own. The places were all beautiful in their own way, and every city varied from the others. Isfahan’s Blue Mosque was breathtaking, and lesser-known sites, such as the Contemporary Art Museum, were a delight. Iranian cuisine had a thread of similarity running through it, but the dishes vary from region to region and (cook by cook). There was always variety, and everyone found delicious things to their liking everywhere we went. Our hotels were terrific, too. They were all great, but for me, the Abbas and the Moshir Garden were my favorites as I loved the historic architecture and the unique decor of both.

Perhaps the greatest surprise was the welcome we received from Iranian people everywhere we went. My experiences with Iranians had already taught me that they are perhaps the world’s politest people, and their hospitality is legendary. However, to receive such warm and personal welcomes from people on the street, in markets, and at historical sites was really amazing. Over and over we heard “, We love the American people.” We were invited to people’s homes and asked to be in photos with their families. Reading about the welcome is one thing but experiencing it is a joy.

Now for the one thing that disappointed me about the trip: we couldn’t be without our guide’s supervision. I understand that this was not his decision and of course as a guest, I would mind my manners as well as local law and custom. I couldn’t visit my Iranian family in their home and was told that it was a provision of my visa, which I wish had been made clear when I applied for the visa. That would have made things easier in arranging our visits together which ultimately took place in the hotel lobby. I also love to shop in an area where there are handicrafts and art items, and I did not have enough time for this (usually I take more time to wander and peruse, etc.). If Bahman reads this, he’ll wonder how I could have shopped any more but it is one of my loves and something for which I’m known (proudly-my friends love my gifts). I do understand that these were the provisions of my visa and Bahman did try to give us free time. Circumstances just did not permit the kind of freedom I would prefer.


As you now know, the trip was a great success for me and I thank you for an outstanding experience.

  1. This was a wonderful and unique travel experience that I will treasure. Great itinerary, the fabulous guide who treated us like family and incredible shopping.

Barbara S, Passage Through Persian History & Culture November 2017


  1. The meals Bahman ordered or recommended were always good choices and everyone seemed to find their favorite(s). Needless to say, we all pretty much got addicted to the saffron ice cream.

I am so glad that a friend gave me your company information so many years ago (before she stopped traveling due to health issues) as I don’t think we could have had a better Iranian experience with another company and with anyone except Bahman.  He really made the trip.

Thanks again,

Ethel, Passage Through Persian History & Culture November 2017


  1. We were so busy upon returning from Iran that I don’t remember if I ever emailed you. Assuming not, I want you to know we had a great time. We truly enjoyed both the country and the people we met there. Bahman was even better than advertised. I know you went to a great deal of trouble to make certain we made the trip, and I thank you and Sarah. We have encouraged friends to take your tour, but the current situation in the Middle East scares folks away. I hope we can reestablish friendly relations with the good people of Iran.

Best, Bob

Robert Schlieman, Persian History & Culture Revisited April 2014


  1. “I’m sorry that I did not have a chance to say goodbye and to thank you for a really marvelous trip. It was everything that I had hoped for and more–perfectly organized and a terrific guide. You can count me among your permanent fan club!”

James Lowenstein, Treasure of Iran February 2014


  1. “I want to thank you and Gwen for organizing and leading such a wonderful experience for me. You both have such a knack for taking care of each individual traveler and seeing that they have a top-notch experience. I appreciated all the little “extra” things you did. The trip far exceeded my expectations. It is definitely at the top of trips I have taken (and there have been many). I will certainly encourage my friends to take a trip to Iran.”

Marge Haruff, Treasure of Iran February 2014


  1. “My trip to Iran changed my view of all things middle eastern, particularly Iran. Your goal of fostering communication between Americans and Iranians has definitely worked with me! If Obama could take the same trip that I did, if our government could meet and mingle among the Iranian people the way we did, then the face of the people, not the Iranian government, would be foremost in the minds of those who would wage war. Again, my sincere thanks to you. I look forward to a second trip to Iran.”

Lettie Lupis, Persia Revisited November 2011


  1. “Paulette [my roommate] kept telling me about how Iranians would come up to us and welcome us to their country, and she was right…even though her experiences were a few years earlier.

Everywhere we went we ran into Iranians from other cities visiting the same sites we were visiting. We also saw lots of students on field trips. The approach would often be the same: a small group would walk past us, and would quietly say hello. If we responded they knew they could speak English to us. Invariably, they started off by asking where we were from. Never did “America” elicit an unhappy look or a turning away. Instead, we heard phrases like “We love America. How long have you been here? Where have you been? Do you like our country? We want to visit/study in America. Please tell your friends to come and visit Iran, etc.” Almost all wanted to take pictures of us alone and of us with them, using their ever-present cell phones primarily. None objected to having their photos taken by us once we started talking.

As I told you, I saw a familiar face at our baggage carousel at JFK and went over to recount to her the kinds of friendly conversations we had had. It was Madeline Albright. She thanked me and introduced me to her young female colleague, who was from Iran.”

Susan Dalloway, Persia Revisited November 2011


  1. “Many thanks for putting together such a fabulous trip. I felt very safe in Iran. Our leader, Bahman was superb. I only have one suggestion: too much food.

Anyway, thanks again for a great adventure. Hope to take another one with your agency.”

Barbara Weiss Treasures of Iran February/March 2011


11. “Bahman is sensational! What a gem… fun, full of information, anticipating all of our needs. It was a most wonderful trip. The Iranian people are the warmest and sweetest that I have met in my many travels. The country was not at all what I expected. The people, the cities were beyond what I could ever imagine. I would recommend it to all of my friends.

Thanks for a glorious adventure.”

Regina Coxe Treasures of Iran Febraury/March 2011


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