A significant increase in Iranian tourists visiting Russia was witnessed in 2015. Nearly 34,000 Iranian tourists visited Russia in the first nine months of 2015, a rise of 111 percent when compared to the same period a year ago. In November 2015, Iran and Russia agreed to reciprocally launch tourism offices in their countries. A world leader in the number of historical and artistic highlights, Iran said its decision to build a thousand world-class hotels and nearly as many recreational facilities are now under construction. We asked Mortaza Rahmani Movahed, deputy head of the Iran's Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization, about the status of Iranian-Russian tourism ties and what future is awaiting the industry in Iran. The following is a condensed version of the interview.
As you might know, after signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and some serious developments in the Middle East, relations between Iran and Russia has transformed led to the improvement of economic ties. The question is what impacts better economic relations could have on the bilateral tourism ties? Do we have any agreement between the two states on tourism industry?
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"What attracted the attention of officials of Russian tourism industry towards Iran was developments occurred in Russia-Turkey relations which caused Russians to pay a special attention to Iran in the search for new sources in food and tourism industries, because Iran is the safest country in the region. Meanwhile, other countries in the region which have tourism attractions are faced with security challenges. Accordingly, this opportunity has conveyed the view that tourism can be one of the aspects of long-term cooperation between Russia and Iran. This analysis initiated the talks between Iran and Russia on tourism.
"Although some frameworks have been created for cooperation so far, a fundamental determination should be made in the Russian side. What Russians care for in tourism travels is competitive rates, varied climates, and access to various services. In this regard, Iran is still facing challenges to become a preferred option to the Russian tourists. Iran is not able to provide the varied services that the Turks offer to Russians. The two countries have negotiated on three subjects to solve these challenges. The first issue discussed was how to reduce costs. Russians demand the removal of visa as part of travel costs. On the other hand, frequency of transportation routes, especially air routes, was discussed in order to make rates competitive, reduce the cost of travel packages, and increase their acceptance and attraction. In terms of diversity of services, it is believed that, because of the diversity of tastes among Russians, Iran should adapt to tastes of Russian tourists who are ready for cultural-recreational travel and ignore part of the services they receive in other countries.
"One reason for the attractiveness of Iran is the long cold season in Russia and cold in Europe. Therefore, travelling to hot areas of Iran would be desirable for Russians. I hope we can achieve some models of mutual cooperation on tourism, including the abolition of visa for collective travels. This is the proposal submitted by Iranian and Russian tourism organizations to ministries of foreign affairs of two countries. Thus, negotiations should be done at this level and some agreements should be achieved. Russia is one of Iran's target markets, so we should take some measures for gaining this market. In fact, some facilities should be provided and a list of these facilities should be prepared. We should announce that what competitive travel packages we can offer. This set of actions could lead to attraction of more tourists to Iran."
Some unofficial estimates have suggested that more than thirty thousand Iranians have been visiting Russia since January 2016. Regarding the statistics of Russian tourists visiting Iran in that period of time, why Iran could not take attract much more Russian tourists?
"As you said, Balance is to the benefit of Russians. Iranians usually travel to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Some trips are also taken to Astrakhan and Bashkortostan. However, tourism is a two-way street. Iran have to improve its capacities and planning to attract more tourists. In addition, the Russian side will be asked in talks to help tourism balance and make concessions to Iran."
To what extent, tourism industry could change or transform the relations between Iran and Russia or any other countries?
"Iran’s potentials and capacities are clear. There is a message in the nature of tourism, that is people-to-people connectivity, defined in the domain of public diplomacy. The richer and stronger this communication, the broader the ties. Some effective forces had been formed in relations between Russia and Turkey and when the relations between the two countries got weak, these forces put pressure on both sides and restored the relations. If tourism is institutionalized and developed could have such effectiveness and prevent tension and annoyance. Therefore, tourism should be defined in the realm of national security of countries."
What are the costs of traveling to Iran for the Russian tourists and are these costs financially logic for the tourists?
"Russians expect to have a one-week air travel to Iran for less than 600 euros, while travelling to Turkey costs them about 400 euros. Currently, the cost of travel to Iran is over 1000 euros. However, it should be noted that travels of Russians to Turkey are mainly for business purposes and shopping. In addition, Russians travel to Turkey for coastal tourism, but business tourism accounts for the lion’s share of Russia-Turkey tourism."
What is you recommendation to overcome the obstacles of Iranian-Russian tourism ties, in particular to attract more Russian tourists to Iran?
"Iran can provide Russian tourists with all tourism services that are offered to European tourists. However, tastes of Russian and European tourists are different. European tourists ignore part of their expectations for travel to Iran, but it is difficult for Russians to do so."
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