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Iran, Lebanon Seem to Be Encouraging U.S. Tourism

Destinations: The State Department recommends that Americans avoid visiting those nations, but no laws bar it.

September 21, 1997|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

You may not be ready to book your flight to Tehran or Beirut today, or next week, or even next year, but here's a development for the future file of any traveler interested in antiquity and the Middle East: Once-forbidden Iran and Lebanon are both opening to American tourism.

Despite stateside worries about violence and anti-American sentiments, both nations have made recent public moves to encourage tourism. And though the U.S. State Department recommends that Americans avoid travel to both nations--it has "travel warnings" in place for both, citing safety concerns--there are no laws against it.

Iran: The Iranian government announced in August 1996 that it would ease its visa process, which had kept away almost all American visitors. Soon after the announcement, Long Beach tour operator Janet Moore, who has specialized in cultural tours to Asia and the Middle East for 14 years, was on a flight to Tehran.

A deal was struck, and Moore's company, Distant Horizons ([800] 333-1240 or [562] 983-8828), included a 16-day Iranian itinerary in its 1997 catalog, with departures in May and October. Prices began at $4,820 per person. The tours sold out "within hours. It was incredible," Moore says.

Moore brought three groups of 15 travelers each in May, using an academic guide from the U.S. or Britain along with English-speaking local guides. Four more groups are scheduled to visit in October, and Moore tentatively plans eight group departures for Iran in 1998, possibly combining the country with destinations such as Yemen and Uzbekistan.

Moore says her groups encountered no hostility and were occasionally approached by Iranians wishing to shake hands. But like many seasoned specialists in travel to edgy locales, she declines to make sales pitches regarding safety: Every traveler, she says, should weigh the facts.

To any American who remembers the rhetoric, flag-burnings and mob scenes of the 1979-81 Iranian hostage crisis, any discussion of a vacation to Iran may seem a step into the surreal. Yet those who have made that step don't necessarily look like thrill-seekers. Among those who have signed on to visit Iran, Moore says, "the average age is probably 55 to 65, maybe 70. They're well-traveled, sophisticated, educated. These are people who have traveled to a large number of countries."

Once they arrive, Moore says, "everyone in their heart is thinking that the highlight of the trip is going to be Persepolis [the ancient capital of Persia, about 30 miles northeast of Shiraz], which dates back to 400 BC and is one of the great archeological sites in the world. But at the end, most people were naming Isfahan [about 200 miles south of Tehran] as their favorite spot. It's just one of those preserved, incredibly beautiful cities. If you stand in the central square, you see two mosques, a palace and the bazaar. . . ."

Ann Aylwin, China and Central Asia regional director for the tour operator Geographic Expeditions, adds that "what takes everyone by surprise is the warmth of the people."

Geographic Expeditions (tel. [800] 777-8183), a veteran San Francisco-based operator of adventure trips, offered an Iranian tour in its 1993 catalog, then saw its group dwindle to four when red tape in the visa process delayed their departure. With that process smoothed, the company is again investing high hopes in Iran.

On Sept. 6, 16 Geographic clients left to join an Iranian-born guide on a 22-day Iranian itinerary (including Tehran, Shiraz, Persepolis, Isfahan and rural areas near the Azerbaijan border), at prices beginning at $4,990 per person, excluding air fare between the U.S. and Tehran. Next year, Aylwin says, the company is likely to offer at least five Iranian departures in spring and fall.

More information on Iranian visa requirements is available through the Iranian Interest Section (located inside the Pakistan Embassy at 2209 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20002; tel. [202] 965-4990, fax [202] 965-1073).

Lebanon: For the first half of this century, Lebanon was a popular Mediterranean tourist retreat for Europeans, rich with French influences, broad city boulevards and archeological sites. Then, as the French stepped back and hostilities with neighboring Israel escalated, tourism dried up. In 1985, after the hijacking of a TWA plane to Beirut, the U.S. government forbade its citizens to travel to Lebanon. Between 1975 and 1990, the country's civil war killed an estimated 150,000 people.

But on July 30, after entreaties from Lebanese government officials pledging to boost efforts against terrorism, the U.S. government lifted its travel ban.

Lebanon, about the size of Connecticut, still has big troubles: Syrian and Israeli soldiers occupy parts of the country, as do various Muslim guerrilla groups. In August alone, at least 26 Israeli soldiers and Muslim guerrillas were killed in fighting that included air strikes and brush fires in Southern Lebanon.

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