Misplaced Priorities, Missed Opportunities

Travel & Environment Desk
Misplaced Priorities, Missed Opportunities
Misplaced Priorities, Missed Opportunities

Convenience in deciding tourism policy is one thing and the compulsion to deliver is something else. By the same token, decision and policy makers of this industry in Iran should know that “slogans” have their own objectives while “common sense” has its special value, prestige and priority. A professor who has taught tourism management for 15 years believes the time has come to subscribe to the latter.

Without drawing on clichés and tired public relations, Dr. Mahmoud Ziayi insists the holiday industry in Iran cannot afford the periphery it has been consigned to for decades. Tourism can and will deliver with a reordering of priorities and seizing opportunities, he told the Financial Tribune on the eve of a major tourism conference in Tehran.

Iran’s tourism dilemma goes beyond a visible lack of quality hotels and other related infrastructure.  So long as this industry is seen through a narrow political order rather than a much-needed economic requisite progress will be far cry.

This was stated by Ziayi, an associate professor at Allameh Tabatabaei University’s Department of Tourism Management and an organizer of the “One Billion Tourists, One Billion Opportunities” international tourism conference scheduled later this month in Tehran.

The main goal of the meeting, which will bring together speakers from American, Malaysian, and Australian universities, is to provide a platform for tourism experts to pool minds and share experience, ideas and expertise.

“The agenda has been prepared to sensitize the public toward tourism and its impact on the environment,” Ziayi, an expert on sustainable development, told the Financial Tribune.

Networking is an integral part of a functioning tourism industry, he said and emphasized that one of the main aims of the conference is to help professionals forge perpetual relations that will “facilitate the development of tourism scientifically”.

Ziayi lamented lack of government interest in such gatherings and said, “As opposed to tourism officials showing interest in these sessions, it is we [private sector] who have to chase them and plead for support for such events.”

 Feasible Targets

Iranian officials recently set a target of 20 million tourist arrivals a year by 2020, a goal deemed ambitious by most experts.

“It’s not a question of ability because Iran has the potential to draw 20 million tourists …It’s whether or not we really want to develop tourism.”

Ziayi said despite claims by officials regarding the economic benefits of a functioning tourism sector, the driving force behind Iran’s push for tourism development is to distinguish itself from regional countries and counter the western smear campaign.

To drive the point home, he recalled a familiarization tour organized by the government for foreign diplomats.

“Normally, fam tours are more often than not organized for foreign media–not diplomats–so they can write about their personal experience and tourist attractions of a country and inform public opinion,” the instructor at the prestigious university said.

He complained that there is a lack of cooperation and common vision among relevant organizations.

“It doesn’t matter if you have a vast infrastructure, all it takes is for one organization not to do its job and the entire system falls apart.

“For instance, if the visa process takes too long or there’s a holdup at the airport, it’s the industry that suffers.”

He conceded that Iran’s woefully underdeveloped infrastructure must be addressed.

“Suppose we get 20 million tourists a year, where are we going to put them up? How do we take them around?”

Even though attracting foreign tourists is crucial, Ziayi believes priority must be given to domestic travelers. According to a study by the Majlis Research Center earlier this year, inbound tourism generated barely $1.1 billion 2013; whereas money spent by Iranian holidaymakers abroad topped $7.5 billion that year.

“Clearly, more people travel out of Iran than to it, and that is a problem that must be addressed,” he said. “You need a thriving domestic tourism market before aiming for the international travel market.”

One need not be a genius to understand why most Iranians prefer to travel abroad rather than go on vacation inside the country; they simply are unhappy with the quality and standard the domestic industry offers and that too at unusually high prices.

“If we cannot meet the expectations of Iranians who have lived their whole lives in Iran and are familiar with the culture, language, traditions… how can we satisfy the needs of foreign visitors?” Ziayi asked as a matter of fact.

He said if a third of outbound tourists decided to travel to Iranian holiday destinations, it would generate higher revenues compared to what foreign travelers spend in Iran.

 Human Resources

Trained personnel form an integral part of the industry, but unfortunately we do not have many in Iran, Ziayi said, adding that only some positions are filled with qualified individuals while the vast majority involved in the industry, i.e. hotel staff, are hardly fit for the job.

“Universities prepare students for theoretical knowledge, not vocational training,” so institutions of higher learning cannot be blamed for the lack of qualified people in the industry.

Universities do not have the resources to train students for every position and it is up to Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization to fully support the private sector to train competent personnel, he noted.

 Diversity, Key to Success

Iran’s meager inbound tourism arrivals–five million, according to official reports–pale in comparison to regional rivals, especially Turkey and the UAE, which drew 38 million and 18 million visitors respectively in 2014. So, does Iran really stand a chance?

“Of course,” said Ziayi. “What sets Iran apart from regional countries is its diversity: climatic, biological and ethnic”.

Iran is home to numerous ethnic groups, each boasting their own unique customs, traditions and handicrafts.

“It’s the cultural and ethnic diversity that propelled Iran’s handicraft industry, but now even the world famous Naqsh-e-Jahan Square in Isfahan, the epicenter of Iranian handicrafts, is replete with Chinese, Turkish and Indian products. It’s a disaster.”

He says when craftsmen and artisans do not get the support they deserve, they swap their workshops for stores to sell foreign products.

“Traditional handicrafts are an inseparable part of Isfahan’s identity, so when the city loses its traditional handicraft market, it loses its identity. We can only compete with regional countries if we protect and preserve our distinguishing features.”

The international tourism conference, organized by the Tourism Research Center of Allameh Tabatabaei University, is scheduled for September 28 at Milad Tower International Convention Center. Workshops will be held the next day at the university’s School of Management and Accounting in Tehran.

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