Making Tracks in Iran

Iranians are turning to high-end tourism to help boost their lagging economy. They've been struggling draw in foreign currency while living under sanctions placed on them...over the country's nuclear program. So, they've been finding alternative revenue sources to help get things back on track. NHK WORLD's Mitra Bolurieh explains.

On October 23rd, the Golden Eagle Danube Express luxury train pulled into the city of Zanjan, in western Iran.

On board were about 60 passengers from nine countries around the world.
For most of them, it was their first visit to Iran.

"I am afraid to come alone. That is why we join the train. "We will encourage our people to come Iran."

It took the train two weeks to cover the 7,000-kilometers between Budapest and Tehran.

After entering Iran, the passengers were taken to visit six World Heritage sites, including the 14th-century Soltaniyeh Dome and the ancient city of Persepolis.

There was strong demand for places on the train, despite ticket prices of up to 15,000 dollars per person.

Jos Beltman runs a travel agency in Holland. His reason for joining the tour was see this little-known country for himself.

Beltman says this visit has given him a totally new impression of Iran.

"Normally in the news, it happens they are hostile population. It is not the case, it's most friendly people I know."
Jos Beltman / Managing director, Incento

This is the first time Iran has allowed a luxury train to enter the country since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. One reason for this is the impact of economic sanctions.

In place of its oil revenues, Iran needs to find another source of foreign currency. So it is promoting tourism. This comes at a good time, as fewer tourists are visiting neighboring countries due to security concerns.

This move comes as good news for the tourist industry in Iran.

"This is a major opportunity for us. We want to take this chance to show our culture to people from around the world."
Ebrahim Pourfaraj / Chairman, tourism agencies Assn.

However, tourism in Iran will not recover fully until the sanctions are lifted.

Hand-made Persian rugs are popular with tourists. They can cost thousands of dollars. But tourists aren't buying them much because they can't use European or American credit cards in Iran.

"Instead of expensive rugs, tourists buy cheaper local crafts because they can't use their credit cards. I hope our government can reach an agreement so that the sanctions will be lifted."
Rug shop owner

Although more tourists are visiting Iran now, the government needs to find ways to encourage them to bring in more foreign currency.