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Iran goes on tourism charm offensive amid unfolding crisis in Middle East

Iran goes on tourism charm offensive amid unfolding crisis in Middle East

Iran has extended visa-free access to 33 countries in a bid to boost the country’s tourism sector, strengthen diplomatic relations and tackle “fear-mongering” about the country.

The move comes at a time when attacks by Iran-affiliated rebel groups and militias across the Middle East have seen relations with Western nations rapidly deteriorate, with US president Joe Biden saying he “holds [Iran] responsible” for supplying the weapons that killed three American soldiers in Jordan last month.

No Western nations were present on the list of countries Iran is seeking to expand visa access for; rather it appears to be reaching out to countries across Latin America and Asia. The list includes countries such as Japan, Brazil, India, Mexico, Peru, Indonesia, Singapore, Cuba, Tunisia and Russia.

Visa requirements were also dropped for visitors from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, with which Tehran has had frosty relations for years until a recent rapprochement.

These countries add to a list of visa-exempt nations that already included Turkey, Azerbaijan, Oman, China, Armenia, Lebanon and Syria.

“The Ministry of Tourism’s proposal to cancel visas for some countries has been approved by the government,” Ezzatollah Zarghami announced earlier in December. “The Islamic Republic has shown its readiness to open doors to people worldwide and provide more facilities for them so that they can easily visit our country and benefit from its advantages.

“The decision helps foil negative advertisements, rumors and fear-mongering about Iran,” he said.

The visa-free travel for Indians, which came into action from 4 February, is for tourists arriving in the country by air and for not for more than 15 days.

Underlining the purpose of the visa waiver extended to select nations, Zarghami says: “Despite the concerted efforts of some countries to dissuade their citizens from visiting Iran and to create a negative perception, the personal experience of tourists visiting the historical and cultural sites of Iran has effectively dispelled these apprehensions.

“The attempts made by enemies to create Iranophobia among various nations cannot overshadow the eagerness of some foreign nationals to explore Iran’s attraction,” he says in what experts see as a veiled attack on the US and other Western nations.

The move is aimed at supporting the Iranian economy that has suffered greatly due to economic sanctions and isolation, especially after the US withdrawal from the landmark 2015 nuclear deal agreed between Iran and world powers, Dr Muddassir Quamar, associate professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, tells The Independent.

Donald Trum scrapped the Obama-era nuclear deal in May 2018, and reimposed severe sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Subsequent efforts to restore the deal collapsed with Tehran increasingly expanding its nuclear programme in violation of the limits of the deal. This has prompted other American allies, including the UK, Germany and France to maintain similar constraints on Iran’s missile programme through their own national sanctions.

Iran has also been supplying Russia with large quantities of drones to use in its war against Ukraine, a conflict which has become increasingly defined by the use of such unmanned aerial and sea-borne vehicles.

“By allowing visa-free travel, Iran intends to tap its tourism potential, especially from emerging economies,” says Quamar. “Besides, this can be viewed as a move to attract industries and businesses from various countries. This is part of the Iranian regime’s efforts to overcome the isolation it has faced, especially from the Western and European countries.”

According to Ali-Asghar Shalbafian, Zarghami’s deputy, the tourist footfall is expected to reach six million in the current financial year that ends on 21 March. Foreign arrivals in December reached 4.4 million, about 48.5 per cent more compared to the corresponding period in 2022.

However, the move is unlikely to increase Iran’s regional influence or provide a significant boost to Iran’s economy, says Kabir Taneja, a researcher with the Observer Reseach Foundation, an Indian think-tank. “I personally wouldn’t subscribe too much to the idea that it’s any kind of big boost to Iranian soft power because the idea for Iran, I presume, is to get as many dollars as possible through tourism.

“Now Iran doesn’t really figure in anyone’s top tourist destinations. And considering what is happening in the Middle East right now, I’d be slightly sceptical that there’s going to be a huge outflow of tourists going into Iran,” he tells The Independent, while referring to the Israel-Hamas war, in which nearly 26,500 Palestinians and 1,400 Israelis have been killed.

With Tehran’s militia network launching attacks in Syria and Iraq, there is a fear that the war could spill over to involve other regional players. The Iran-backed Houthi group in Yemen has been targeting commercial and military ships linked to Israel in the Red Sea in what it calls a pushback to Israel’s war on Gaza, with Houthis demanding Israel to stop the war and allow humanitarian aid to enter Palestinian enclave.

Iranian nationalists have for long felt that they have been a victim of Western propaganda while linking it to “Islamophobia” and “Orientalism” in the West, Quamar says. But the policy choices towards Iran are based on realpolitik assessment and geopolitical considerations, he adds.

“Within the broader understanding of the Middle East politics, the Iranian regime is viewed as promoting armed proxy groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and so on, that to an extent has put the domestic security in many countries and regional stability in the Middle East at risk, thus the view prevalent of Iran being a destabilising force,” he explains.

He believes, therefore, that “the regime’s effort to put the measure as a counter to ‘Iranophobia’ is for domestic consumption”.

“In reality, the tourism/trade industry in Iran have suffered greatly due to the geopolitical problems and the sanctions on Iran due to the nuclear issue. Without addressing these issues, I do not foresee any significant change in the international attitude towards Iran including among countries that have been included in visa-free list.”