Freed from the baggage of sanctions, Iran is coming onto the radar of curious travellers but faces the uphill task of attracting mainstream tourists, finds TTG Asia
After economic sanctions on Iran were lifted in January 2016, tour operators are seeing pent-up demand among intrepid travellers for the once-isolated country, although opinions are split whether the destination will see greater footfall from Asia in the near future.
Yoshio Mogi, president of Trans Global Tour Japan, opined that the recent move is casting Iran in a more positive light as a destination steeped in history, culture and world heritage sites.
Among growth signs is AirAsia X relaunching thrice-weekly flights to Tehran from Kuala Lumpur since June, opening up new destinations for Malaysian outbound tour operators.
Said Kerry Tam, general manager of Parlo Tours, which will begin group tours to Tehran in 4Q 2016: “We are targeting young people between the ages of 25 and 40 looking for exotic destinations. Iran is a new destination for Malaysia, and we think demand will be for full-board tours.”
Safuan Travel & Holidays is also looking to start full-board group tours to Iran in October, according to general manager Azizi Borhan.
Down Under, the buzz for Iran among Australian agencies is more palpable.
Louisa Virgato, product manager at Abercrombie & Kent Australia, said: “Iran is one of the hottest emerging destinations and has become so popular
that most tourism services are fully booked in the country for the peak travel period between September and November this year.
“In terms of sales, Iran is our strongest performing destination in 1H2016, with 28 per cent more bookings than the same time last year,” added Virgato.
Daniella van Haltren, destination manager for Middle East and Turkey for Australia’s Intrepid Group, noted: “Iran definitely appeals, especially to more experienced travellers who have been there, done that and are looking for the next exciting destination to explore.
“In the last 12 months we have seen sales on Intrepid Travel’s Iran Adventure trip more than double and we have had to create extra departures to match the demand,” she elaborated.
Elsewhere in Asia, demand for Iran is sizable but limited to niche segments.
Hong Kong’s Blue Sky Travel, managing director, Angela Ng, told TTG Asia: “Clients are mostly sophisticated travelers who have traveled around the world and can afford this kind of trip. As it’s
difficult to reach the minimum capacity for group tour departures, some clients come to me for tailor-made FIT programs.”
Although Destination Consultants in Japan has been arranging visits to Iran for the past six years, sales executive Natsumi Suzuki has not seen a significant uptick in the number of Japanese visitors wanting to visit Iran as they are still concerned about US visa restrictions on people who have visited Iran.
There appears to be little change in demand from Singapore as well, with Vivian Yeo, director, content marketing at Quotient TravelPlanner, stating: “Our clients in general do not have much appetite for Iran and we have not observed any change with the lifting of sanctions.”
Despite its potential, there are still lingering concerns of Iran as an unsafe destination, travel chiefs pointed out.
Mayflower Acme Tours deputy general manager, channel management, Abdul Rahman Mohamed, urged: “The Iranian NTO has to work hard to change negative perception about the country that it is unsafe. In order to do this, it has to work with outbound tour operators and the media to organize fame trips.”
Rajji Rai, chairman, Uniglobe Swiftravels India, added: “It will take time and marketing efforts to project Iran as a destination in the minds of leisure tourists.”
Reporting by Rohit Kaul, S Puvaneswary, Julian Ryall, Paige Lee Pei Qi, Rebecca Elliot, Feizal Samath and Prudence Lui