People, Travel

Welcoming Interaction

Welcoming Interaction Welcoming Interaction

The moments that defy stereotypes and preconceived notions are both big and small when it comes to a trip to Iran.

New York resident Kaja Olcott, for instance, recalls walking along the streets of a small Iranian town with her family and hearing chanting and singing.

The voices were coming from a tiny room in the basement of a nearby building, and Olcott’s tour guide peeked in to get a closer look.

“I’m not sure what was being celebrated,” says Olcott. “There was a group of maybe 50 people crowded into this small room...and they all came over and started hugging us and encouraging us to come in and clap and sing with them.”

That moment became one of many vivid, impromptu cultural exchanges during her nearly two-week visit to Iran. “I was honestly driven to tears,” she adds. “They didn’t even know who we were and they just welcomed us in. They are so proud of their culture and so excited to share it with people.”

Olcott’s experience is by no means singular among American travelers who have recently visited Iran, writes Mia Taylor for The Street.

The stories being relayed by one traveler after another depict welcoming, humbling or heartwarming interactions between ordinary Iranians and Americans, despite the fact that the two countries have long had an icy relationship.

The recent lifting of economic sanctions against Iran seems to have opened a floodgate of pent up demand among Americans who had been waiting for the opportunity to travel to the country.

Intrepid US travelers, observing the slightest warming of relations, have wasted no time booking trips to Iran, overwhelming tour companies who say the demand has led to tours filling up immediately and new ones rapidly being added.

 The Next Cuba

Iran, it seems, has suddenly become the next Cuba, a country opening up for American travelers in ways that in years past were largely unthinkable, making it one of 2016’s hottest travel destinations.

“There’s been a significant bump in the number of people inquiring about going in 2016, who are trying to jump on trips with last minute notice,” says Annie Lucas, vice president at Mir Corporation, which offers train journeys through Iran in group tours and private tours. “We’ve had trips fill up and have added departures, offering more opportunities to travel there.”

The increase in telephone calls about visiting Iran began before the nuclear deal was even inked, when there was a sense among the traveling public that there would be positive news forthcoming, says Lucas. And once the agreement was finalized in July, call volume dramatically spiked.

“Iran has dominated about 50% of the calls we’ve been taking,” says Lucas.

Travelers are not the only ones showing renewed interest. Many airlines are also restarting service to Iran, or expanding existing service.

All of this activity however, takes place while a State Department warning remains in effect for Iran.

The government warning however, seems a world away from the experiences many travelers have lately been having in the country.

Will Weber, co-founder and senior director of Journeys International led two back-to-back trips to Iran in 2015.

“There is so much fear and propaganda that has conditioned people to think it’s a dangerous place for Americans,” says Weber. “But that myth is immediately debunked by the educated Iranians who welcome Americans, they bring you in and want to serve you tea.”

Weber spoke with Iranians from all walks of life during his two visits, ordinary people on the street, doctors, members of nomad groups, even clerics at mosques.

And repeatedly, wherever the group of Journeys International travelers went in the country, locals would ask to have their pictures taken with them.

Beyond the interactions with Iranian people, the country can also be a richly rewarding historic, cultural and archeological experience. Iran is home to 19 UNESCO World Heritage sites and is a place where travelers can explore ancient ruins, historic cities, bazaars, nomadic camps and mountain landscapes.

 Much More Important

“With some of the things happening in the Middle East, in places like Syria, it means the ancient sites in Iran are that much more important - sites like Persepolis, are among the few remaining, well-preserved archaeological sites in the region,” says Julie McCormack, director of Asia programs for Mountain Travel Sobek, which offers two trips each year to Iran.

Like others, Mountain Travel Sobek has seen exponential growth in interest tied to Iran. McCormack, however, is hesitant to attribute the swelling numbers of travelers entirely to the nuclear deal, noting that increased travel media coverage may also be playing a role, as well as positive reviews from those who have recently returned.

No matter what the cause, McCormack, who has visited Iran herself, says the country deserves the increased interest and attention it’s getting from Americans.

She easily relays several memorable moments involving exchanges with locals that occurred during her own visit to Iran. Many of the women in particular, that McCormack came in contact with while traveling through Iran were eager to talk, to share their thoughts about life, family, culture and the two countries.

“People would look us in the eye when they found out we were American and say, ‘Special welcome to you,’” McCormack says.