TBY talks to Ebrahim Pourfaraj, Managing Director of Pasargad Tours Iran and Chairman of the Iranian Tourism Operators’ Association.
TBY From which countries do you receive the most tourists, and what is the main purpose for them coming to Iran?
EBRAHIM POURFARAJ Most tourists come for cultural reasons as they are interested in seeing Iran’s cultural heritage, and they are mainly from Europe. After Europe the US supplies the second largest group of visitors to Iran. Then we have Australians, Canadians, and Japanese groups. Actually, the UK, although also a part of Europe, ranks second after Europe itself. We have lots of groups coming from the UK. There are also many international institutes, museums, and universities that trust Pasargad Tours to plan and program educational trips to Iran. Pasargad Tours is also involved in cultural and musical events such as concerts at Persepolis (2006), Saadabad Palace (2007), and Vahdat Hall in Tehran (2010). Another side of tourism is that of groups coming for pilgrimage purposes from Kuwait, the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and even from Turkey.
What sort of obstacles do you face in trying to make Iran a better known destination?
Persuading people in the West and around the world that Iran is a new tourism destination was something that took a lot of effort to market, promote, advertise, and present in all the international markets. That was one side of the obstacle that had to be overcome. The other was to convince the government, as it has other problems occupying its attention. However, the government did support us after we convinced it. I did a lot of talking with members of the government about promoting tourism in that era. After the few steps that I already mentioned were solved, we needed to address what tourists really require: hotels, transportation, and other facilities. The hotels were in a very bad state; they had to be promoted, reconstructed, and renovated. Transportation had to be revolutionized because the system had not been used to transport tourists in a comfortable manner. And third was facilitating the regulations and laws for tourist visas and other paperwork, which at that time were very bureaucratic.
How did you manage to address all of these massive infrastructure deficiencies?
In 1991 and 1992, when the first groups started to flock into the country, we didn’t even have properly trained tour guides because there were no schools or universities with any courses to teach them. It was at that time that I established a research center in Pasargad Tours. This was a kind of tour guide school to educate those interested in tour guiding, and who had some background in Persian history and a good command of a foreign language. We taught them how to approach tourists and how to guide them; the ethics of the whole job. I am now very proud to announce that Pasargad Tours currently has 67 well-trained tour guides in many languages such as German, Japanese, French and Spanish; not just English. When the research center was first established its main purpose was to solve our own problems at Pasargad Tours and to provide us with properly trained tour guides for our own groups. In addition to that, Pasargad Tours also tailor makes itineraries to satisfy the needs of our clients in eco-tourism and historical interests. But after solving our own issues, we began negotiating with the government. With its help we opened training schools for tour guides and trained more people in order to promote tourism in Iran. In the course of all those negotiations and the opening of all those training centers, we have accrued over 3,000 certified tour guides, with 500 of them actively working in the business.
Aside from tour guides, is there any other skill set in demand to improve Iranian tourism?
Actually, in the course of all these educational efforts two of the universities in Tehran also began teaching tourism management, and smaller training schools now cover hotel management and other services. One of them is Tehran University, which has a newly opened tourism faculty and another one that has been working for some years now. They offer hotel management and there are also smaller training schools that have shorter periods of training in order to obtain a certificate.
Is the current skill level of these newly trained employees adequate for the industry?
It is adequate and is improving day by day in parallel with the universities training highly leveled academic teachers. In Tehran, we have 18 training schools offering four-month educational courses, and even some of the managers and personnel of the hotels and tourism agencies are now being retrained in order to reach the same standard as the new generation coming into the business. With the increase in hotels being built and the increasing number of tourists showing interest in coming to Iran, there is higher demand for tourism courses. Even members of the younger generation are becoming more interested in the tourism industry and want to participate in the sector. It is the hotel sector that is now in need of training in order to improve standards. The transport segment is now being addressed, and there is no driver that has not been trained in order to know how to behave, drive, and understand the ethics of the business. You have to take the courses and get the certificates in order to be a bus driver for tourists.
So the motive came from the private sector and then the government responded?
Normally, the ideas and recommendations come from private sector operators. They encounter the problems first, and then reflect this to the government to obtain support in facilitating regulations or in making exceptions. For example, the private sector now receives a 60% discount from municipalities on building hotels. The government is now convinced that the tourism industry brings income to the country and that it provides work and creates jobs for the young generation, which in Iran makes up a significant percentage of the population. Also, one of the most important aspects of tourism is that it gives the opportunity to those visiting Iran to get a true feeling for Iranian hospitality. This changes the bad image provided by the press and media in Western countries in favor of something more accurate. By coming and seeing Iran for themselves, they can see that some of the things that have been said have no truth to them.
Are there any other tax exemptions on those looking to build hotels?
One of the major exemptions is that tour agencies that are members of the Iran Tour Operators Association (ITOA) are exempt from any sort of tax. They work tax free, which is quite a plus to promote tourism and help them focus more on marketing to tourists in Iran. Also, the government is covering 50% of the expenses needed for Iranian tour agencies to participate in European, American or international market events around the world like ITB, WTM, or USTOA or other major conventions.
What is holding the tourism industry back from expanding? Have foreign investors begun to enter the market?
If the image of Iran as a destination changes for the better, an increase of 2 million more tourists is possible, and then we will need to improve our offering to tourists. Foreign investment is very much allowed; it actually depends on how much demand is required. For example, Pasargad Tours is building hotels, but we are engaged in some other projects to build hotels around the country. But the first step is to build a five-star hotel, which is underway in Tehran. If the whole situation goes well, then foreign investors have expressed their willingness to participate in the project.
How does ITOA help promote the Iranian tourism industry?
If it wasn’t for ITOA most of the achievements that we see in the tourism industry in Iran today wouldn’t have happened. ITOA is the house of the private sector tourism industry. It encouraged the government to facilitate visas, which was very difficult. Refurbishing and renovating hotels was also another demand and another way to make the government devote money towards reconstruction or even to facilitate or exempt some of the regulations of the private sector in order to encourage investors to engage more in the sector. ITOA is the main lobbying group setting the policies of the tourism industry in the country.
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