Grassroots Tourism Proposed

Travel & Environment Desk
Grassroots Tourism Proposed
Grassroots Tourism Proposed

Iran’s main obstacle to becoming a top holiday destination in the West is the prevalent Iranophobia that is the outcome of years of smear campaigns, according to David Weaver, a professor of tourism research at Australia’s Griffith University.

Prof. Weaver, who was a keynote speaker at last week’s “One Billion Tourists, One Billion Opportunities” tourism conference, told Financial Tribune that Iran’s tourism goals are ambitious, suggesting that attracting 20 million tourists per year by 2025 might be a herculean task. Yet, he did not write Iran off.

“I think it’s doable … It’s better to overreach than underreach,” he said, adding that the current political climate provides a perfect opportunity for Iran to start challenging some of the western perceptions.

The expert said a grassroots movement is needed to disperse the cloud of fear and mistrust hanging over Iran. He lamented the mass media’s impact on public perception and said one of the most effective ways of combating Iranophobia is promoting alternative tourism in which tourists interact more with the locals.

“Imagine you get hundreds of western academics coming here, seeing things, making connections, and then they could come back later with a group of 20 students each and all of a sudden you get thousands of people building the grassroots relationship with the country,” he said.

  Stiff Competition

Iran’s meager inbound tourism arrivals—five million, according to official reports—pale in comparison to regional heavyweights Turkey and the UAE, which drew 38 million and 18 million visitors respectively in 2014.

As things stand, critics believe Iran has its work cut out and might be unable to challenge its rivals.

However, Weaver thinks Iran’s attractions, including 19 world heritage sites, mean the country has the potential to put up a fight. He said authorities need not “steal” tourists away from Turkey and the UAE, but rather piggyback on their growing tourism industry.

In other words, Iran should aim to persuade tourists visiting other regional countries to also visit Iran by striking deals.

Tourism in the Middle East grew by 4% in 2014 and UNWTO forecasts a 5% growth for the region in 2015, above the predicted global average of 3-4%.

“So if you think about it, 20 million tourists a year is not a big ask,” he said.

Weaver noted that Iran is located at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia, and all those regions will experience substantial economic and tourism growth in the coming years, which will shift tourism targets from domestic to international.

The academic said the main goal of people traveling to Dubai, UAE, is to shop, but Iran can offer a lot more than that, which is what officials must focus on.

Weaver pointed to the proximity of the two Persian Gulf states and said Iranians can offer a short-duration tour package to draw tourists from Dubai and take them to “Shiraz, Persepolis and nature-based locations nearby, for instance.”

He emphasized that cooperation with other countries can be extremely helpful in bringing tourists over. He mentioned Iran’s longstanding relations with India, which is a growing economic force, and said the two countries can strike a deal to facilitate travel.

  Different Cultures, Different Views

Reports emerged last month that vandals had defaced the iconic Sio-se-Pol in Isfahan with graffiti—a common occurrence in Iran—which drew the ire of activists across the country. Criticizing the negligence of officials and indifference of the public, activists said such behavior hurts the value of historical heritage.

However, Weaver thinks the matter is not as black and white as it may seem. He pointed to a recent trip in China where he was “horrified” to see the Great Wall in a similar state to Sio-se-Pol. Much to his surprise, the Chinese did not see a problem with that.

“They see [the graffiti] as value-added, a genuine human imprint upon what is already a cultural imprint,” he said, adding that they have the same attitude toward natural heritage.

“If a cave is covered in graffiti, they say ‘Well, man and nature are basically the same’, and that’s the end of it.”

The eminent academician suggested that people in the West might have to think about different indigenous perspectives that might challenge the western notion of sustainability.

Nonetheless, Weaver said to protect cultural heritage, the sites should be fenced and fines could be imposed and enforced by authorities. Furthermore, educating the public from a young age about the importance of heritage sites will help instill a sense of responsibility toward historical sites.

The expert warned that if regulations are too strict, they may prove counterproductive to tourism since they could dissuade tourists from visiting those sites.