Focus: Tourism

A Spiritual Journey

A Spiritual Journey

May. 14, 2013

Although the number of international arrivals has been steadily increasing—up from 2.2 million people in 2009 to 3.6 million from in 2011 at a growth rate of 58%—domestic tourism is a key segment of the sector overall. A large majority of Iranians frequently travel within the country on a yearly basis, and although they do not typically inject as much money into the economy as foreign tourists are known to contribute, the development of transportation and communications infrastructure is fueled by the large amount of domestic traffic. In addition, the stable number of tourists from year to year secures close to 1.8% of national employment.


Although UNESCO has designated 15 of Iran's various historical and natural sites as part of world heritage, tourists in Iran have much to discover off the beaten path, especially for those interested in religious history. Impressive archaeological sites, carefully planned museums, and ecological wonders await the curious traveler in Iran, a country that has something for everyone.

As the most famous of Iran's archeological sites, Persepolis does not disappoint its onlookers, and tourists flock to the site to relish the detail of 2,500 year-old Persian reliefs. In addition, the ancient Mesopotamian ziggurat and complex of Chogha Zanbil is an intriguing remnant from the Elamite Empire more than 3,500 years ago and has become one of the highlights of any tour of Iran. The three remaining stories of the ziggurat stand as a testament to the feats of ancient engineering.

Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005, Soltaniyeh Dome is an architectural masterpiece that was built in 1302 AD. As the oldest double-shell dome in the country, the structure paved the way for construction of holy buildings throughout the Muslim world and has captivated the attention of both pilgrims and historians for centuries.

Alongside UNESCO's efforts to conserve the country's most valuable sites, the Iranian government has established a number of museums to showcase artifacts and present the stories of civilization to an international audience. As both domestic and international leisure tourists spend more time traveling from point to point, museums function as prime stopovers and often complement the country's most well-know tourist attractions. The Treasury of the National Jewels in Tehran, the National Museum, Golestan Palace in Tehran, and the Sheikh Safi Museum in Ardabil are just a handful of venues that feature the collage of Iran's historical and traditional past. In addition, Tehran's Contemporary Art Museum showcases over 7,000 texts in both Persian and English as part of a specialized library.

Religious tourists and pilgrims have long visited the city of Mashhad to pay homage to the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza, the largest mosque in the world by area. The shrine covers a space of 267,079 sqm, and accommodates 20 million pilgrims and tourists every year. Other notable holy sites include the Goharshad mosque, Danial-e Nabi Mausoleum, Shrine of Hazrat-e Masumeh, and the Chak Chakoo Fire Temple, which is famous for the legendary dripping water that falls from surrounding rock formations.

For the environmentally conscious traveler, Iran's natural beauty and conservation efforts are nothing short of impressive. Stunning waterfalls, deserts, forests, lagoons, caves, swamps, and lakes represent a diverse array of climatic zones and landforms, comparable only to the continental US. In total, the country boasts 28 natural parks, 43 protected wildlife zones, and 166 protected areas, committing nearly 5% of its land—an area of 8 million hectares—to ecotourism and the preservation of natural resources. Among the most popular destinations for eco-holidaymakers are Golestan National Park, Kavir National Park, Lar Protected Area, Bakhtegan Lake, and Bamou National Park.


Due to the extensive bus network and air and rail infrastructure in the country, domestic tourists most often travel to visit friends and family during the summer months. Given the country's abundant natural beauty and coastal destinations, approximately 24% of domestic tourists traveled for sightseeing or entertainment purposes in 2011. However, medical tourism and pilgrimage make up an additional 23% of travel throughout the country. The holy cities of Mashhad, Isfahan, and Shiraz, in addition to beaches along the Caspian Sea are the most popular destinations for domestic tourism.

“In terms of domestic tourism, our figures are impressive," Seyed Hassan Mousavi, Head of Iran's Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts, and Tourism Organization (ICHTO), told TBY. “The number of trips made by Iranians annually is almost six times greater than the average figure in the West. During the New Year holiday, many people take the opportunity to go travelling. In 2012 alone there were 51 million travelers over a 15-day period," he added. Local holiday tradition is one of the main elements contributing to the fact that the volume of domestic tourists comprises 3.5 times more than the international market figure.

With the goal of capitalizing on the already productive domestic market, ICHTO has identified 1,200 model tourism areas that investors can take advantage of. With the support of the Ministry of Finance and the Organization for Investment, Economic, and Technical Assistance of Iran (OIETAI), ICHTO aims to attract a much larger FDI figure to the tourism industry in 2013.


Despite being large, the domestic tourism market generates lower revenues than the international tourism market, as per capita spending among foreign visitors reaches upward of $1,850 per visit on average. This is one reason that the government is working to expand the international market further.

Most of Iran's international visitors arrived in Iran solely for the purpose of leisure travel in 2011. Leisure tourists arriving from abroad are also often relatives of Iranian citizens or expatriates residing outside of Iran returning to visit. Another key segment of international arrival traffic is that of religious tourists, as a large number of pilgrims come to pay a visit to one of the many holy sites scattered throughout the country.

As the Iranian market opens up to increased trade, the attractiveness of business travel and the possibility of MICE tourism may bring a much-needed boost to the corporate segment of the tourism sector. In this regard, China, India, and Pakistan, in addition to regional countries such as Lebanon and the UAE, are key partners for business. Although Saman Jilanchi, Managing Director of Raamtin Residence Hotel, explained to TBY that corporate occupancy rates have gradually declined of late, he concluded,“Iran has all the makings of a great business and leisure destination; the sky's the limit when it comes to tourism."

In terms of medical and healthcare tourism, Iran boasts the distinct advantage of well-educated professionals and affordable costs. As one of the most advanced countries for health care and technology, many investors have seized the opportunity to establish operations and medical facilities in Iran; the year 2012 saw the arrival of approximately 30,000 medical tourists.

Although leisure, business, and healthcare tourism opportunities are blossoming in Iran, ICHTO has identified key areas for improvement. Among its aims is the need for greater tourism promotion abroad, and the organization has launched a campaign to attract international tour agencies and build better infrastructure for the expected increase in international arrivals. “We currently lead $500,000 worth of projects for the development of tourism infrastructure. After the completion of over 800 projects, we will witness tremendous growth," ICHTO Head Mousavi told TBY.