For those who visit Iran for the first time, their perception about this country should change drastically. With its long-running disputes with the US and the resulting sanctions by the Western superpower, one might presume that the Iranian people would, in general, be in distress and would be unfriendly to foreigners. In addition, it is only 30 years since its debilitating -eight year war with Iraq. With the sanctions and trade limitations, surely there would be tension due to the restrictions?
Not so entirely. Our study group from King Prachadipok Institute, comprising some 70 people of various backgrounds and careers, enjoyed a four-day visit here, and wherever we went, we received a warm welcome from the Iranian people.
Iran does not have many foreign visitors and tourists at this time of year. The peak season for visitors generally runs from April until September, and throughout our stay in Isfahan and Tehran, we spotted only a few Europeans and a group of Japanese tourists.
Iranian people were friendly and viewed us with much curiosity. A lot of people approached us and asked where we came from. They brightened upon learning that we were from Thailand. They were indeed courteous. Both men and women, particularly students, were enthusiastic about striking up conversations.
Iran is probably among the few countries in the world where one cannot use credit cards for purchases or settlement of bills. Only cash is accepted. The dollar, of course, is popular at tourist spots, especially if one wants to buy an expensive Persian carpet. Credit cards are not valid due to the American trade and diplomatic sanctions. American firms cannot engage in commercial transactions with Iran, and many of the major credit card companies are American. Therefore, they cannot operate in Iran. Tourists can thus find it quite inconvenient if they want to shop for Iranian products, be it caviar or precious stones.
No international hotel chains have a presence here, but the local hotels are just fine for tourists who are not well-heeled or big-time spenders.
For ordinary people and traders, the loss of income and opportunities in the tourism business are considerable. But it is obvious that Iranian secular and political leaders remain confident that they can tough it out. And despite religious restrictions, ladies still enjoy following fashion trends in their own style.
The absence of American and European tourists is not only due to sanctions but because of economic hardships as well. Those who do visit will not find Western junk food. There are no major brand names like McDonalds, Pizza Hut or Starbucks.
For Thai tourists, who are generally big-time shoppers and revellers, Iran will not be a first-choice destination. There are no brand-name products or bars or nightclubs due to the total ban on alcohol consumption. There is no nightlife or entertainment comparable to that in Thailand. But for those who appreciate refined culture and history, Iran has much to offer, with many such attractions in cities such as Shiraz, Isfahan, Qom and Tehran.
The cost of living here is quite affordable, with cheap goods and food, and visitors will find that time spent in Iran is good value for money.
Among the negative factors are the horrendous traffic jams in Iranian cities. For us Thais, even the familiarity of Bangkok’s dreadful traffic was not sufficient after seeing clogged streets from morning until late evening. There are about three million cars in Tehran, and the people love driving with total freedom. Traffic rules are of little concern. Those who have experienced traffic in China, Vietnam or Cairo would not be shocked.
Despite being surrounded by deserts, Iranian cities are green, and the trees along the streets are well preserved. Of course, during the winter the atmosphere is a little is grey, but the difference will be seen during the spring.
Shrugging off the difficulties, Iran continues to strengthen its relations with developing countries. But its recent launch of a satellite and its persistence with a nuclear power project are viewed warily by the major powers.
Leaving politics aside, Iran is worth a visit. The country welcomes tourists who are prepared to forgo certain earthly pleasures, and a tour of the historic and cultural attractions will compensate for such deprivation.
By Sopon Onkgara