TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — The number of foreigners visiting Iran jumped dramatically over the 12-month period ending in March, with 35 percent more tourists compared to the same period a year earlier, Iran's top tourism official said Saturday.
Masoud Soltanifar said on state TV that the thriving industry could help boost Iran's economy out of recession and bring in much-needed hard currency. He said 4.5 million foreign tourists that came to the Islamic Republic over the period, bringing in some $6 billion in revenue.
He attributed the increase to the 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani, who has shifted away from the bombastic style adopted under his hard-line predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani, who has advocated for tourism, hopes it will boost the country's image.
"The new government has employed a proper language in international relations, leading to growth in tourism," Soltanifar said, adding that foreign tourists, most of whom are from neighboring countries, spend about $1,500 each in Iran.
Looser visa policies have also helped. The government has instructed its embassies around the world to issue visas, especially for group tours, within less than a week, while in the past applications took over a month.
Tourism from Europe has grown 200 percent, he said, thanks to fewer restrictions at embassies, especially in Germany.
Iran has 17 UNESCO-registered world heritage sites, and plans to host 20 million tourists a year by 2025, Soltanifar said, a sum that would fetch $30 billion annually.
That would require tripling the number of four- and five-star hotels, for which the government plans to offer incentives for investors to build.
"The government is ready to provide low-cost loan facilities out of the National Development Fund to investors," Soltanifar said. "There is a strong government will to help promote tourism and good coordination is being developed among all sectors to make that happen," he said.
Ebrahim Pourfaraj, a leading tour organizer, said all four- and five-star hotels at Iran's three major tourist-destination cities of Isfahan, Shiraz and Yazd have been sold out for 2014 and are now being booked for 2015.
One factor driving the surge is cost: Iran's currency, the rial, has fallen sharply in value over the past years under international sanctions over Tehran's disputed nuclear program. That makes top Iranian hotels cheaper compared to those in other countries, with a room at a four-star hotel in Yazd for example costing about $100 a night.