Globetrender editor and founder Jenny Southan wrote the cover story for the November 2016 issue of Business Traveller magazine on the opening up of Iran.
Following a landmark nuclear agreement last year, the country is predicted to become a hot new destination for both tourism and leisure. Here are a series of excerpts from the article…
Iran has been isolated from the rest of the world for about a decade, so there is a degree of paranoia to contend with. The US started imposing sanctions as far back as the 1979 Revolution, but the UN clamped down in 2006 after the country refused to cease its uranium enrichment programme. In 2012, Iranian banks were disconnected from the Swift network that enables overseas financial payments to take place electronically.
The good news is relations are now improving. Following a landmark nuclear deal on July 14 last year between Iran and the UK, US, France, Germany, Russia and China, economic sanctions were lifted on the country in January (certain restrictions related to the military, terrorism and human rights remain).
Iran has taken quite a journey from the 20th to the 21st century. When Reza Shah Pahlavi came to power in the 1920s, he replaced Islamic laws with Western ones – banning the veil and forcing men to shave off their beards. His son, Mohammaed Reza Pahlavi – the last Shah of Iran – took the helm in the early 1940s, crowning himself king in 1967. The oil industry was nationalised in the fifties, women were given the right to vote in 1963 and good relations were fostered with the US and Europe.
However, by the 1970s, despite great wealth and freedoms for some, 50 per cent of the population lived below the poverty line and countless outliers (in their various perceived guises) were being persecuted.
In 1971, to celebrate 2,500 years of the Persian Empire, the Shah decided to throw the“greatest party on Earth”, in the desert outside the ancient ruins of Persepolis. It was one of the biggest gatherings of world leaders ever to be seen. The 60 kings, queens, presidents, emirs, princes, princesses, dukes and duchesses were treated to three days of festivities.
Maxim’s in Paris did the catering, with more than 160 tonnes of food own in – including quail’s eggs stuffed with caviar and 50 roast peacocks – along with 25,000 bottles of wine, 12,000 bottles of whisky and 180 waiters. In the end, the inequity was too much for the general populous to bear, and demonstrations culminated with the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which forced the Shah into exile.
The US embassy was stormed and staff were held hostage for 444 days. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a Shia cleric living in exile in Paris who had been vehemently opposed to the Shah’s reign – as well as the“Great Satan”of America – returned and became Supreme Leader. His strict religious views demanded a return to the “old ways” – and the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The love affair with secular Western culture was over.
Although views towards the US have softened only slightly, the lifting of sanctions from other parts of the world shows that the country is willing to make some concessions in the name of progress. For citizens, it’s still a far cry from the liberal lifestyles of the middle and upper classes in the 1970s (and not everyone would want a return to that). Back then, men and women could go to the beach in skimpy swimwear, frequent nightclubs and drive Cadillacs.
In spite of sanctions, a Western mindset has persisted across some sections of society. Talking to local people, I was told that house parties take place every night across the city:“We drink alcohol, we eat pork. There are cool guys here – people do what they like behind closed doors.”Of course, it’s illegal, but there seems to be a certain amount of civil disobedience that goes on. There are also clampdowns – in February, the government banned Valentine’s Day.
Some cinemas show films from Hollywood; plastic surgery is wildly popular (Tehran is the nose-job capital of the world); you can buy Coca-Cola and Nike trainers. McDonalds hasn’t quite made it yet but you can see copycat fast-food joints like Pizza Hat and ZFC.
Check out @therichkidsoftehran on Instagram and you will see how Generation Z are living – they are brand hungry and pool-party loving, just like young people everywhere.Versace and Roberto Cavalli have opened stores in Tehran this year. Debenhams, Benetton and Mango have been around for a while, but Sephora, H&M and Zara are tipped to join them.
By 2025, Iran is hoping to attract 20 million overseas visitors a year, up from 5.2 million last year. With the average person spending US$1,700, tourism generated US$8 billion for the economy in 2015.
The problem in Tehran is that there is an undersupply of hotels, which means rooms are booked up fast, and standards are lower than in other parts of the world. [However], 125 hotels are to be constructed across the country over the coming years.