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Inside Iran

Encountering soaring architecture and warm hospitality in a country where Americans were not welcome for 20 years

June 28, 1998|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MASHHAD, Iran — Welcome to the Homa Hotel, the most comfortable lodging in perhaps Iran's holiest city. Come on in and relax.

Or, to quote hotel management's greeting more precisely, "DOWN WITH USA."

So say the foot-high polished brass letters (in English) above the lobby entrance. But here in the first days of the rebirth of Iranian tourism, nothing is simple. You may come for the soaring architecture and painstaking tile work, but odds are that the people will steal the show. You may despise the politics, but you might find yourself dwelling on the culture. You may fear accusations of CIA ties (and they might be true), but it's more likely that you'll be enveloped by unstinting hospitality.

Before you can formulate a response to the message over the door, a bellman rushes up, takes your bag and grins broadly. "Good afternoon, sir," he says in English. "Please, this way." At the reception desk, beneath a glowering portrait of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a clerk says, "Welcome, sir, please." When you hand over your U.S. passport, he offers another encouraging smile.

And then, when you return downstairs for dinner an hour later, you find two dozen tourists with two sets of tour guides and drivers, the whole gang 25 paces beyond the "DOWN WITH USA" sign. These two tour groups, merrily spooning yogurt and gnawing flat bread, are the only customers in the restaurant. And they're all Americans.

"My friends all asked me why," sighs June Berger of Baltimore, who is among those at the table. "Sometimes, I just want to say, 'If you have to ask why, then you'll never understand.' "

So don't ask. Instead, ride a few thousand miles in her tour bus.

*

Last year, shortly before the election landslide that gave Iran's presidency to moderate Mohammad Khatami, his economically strapped government began issuing tourist visas to American groups. Now President Khatami does battle with anti-American conservatives still in the government, speaks of cultural exchanges, and has nudged foreign tourist visitation up to an estimated 50,000 yearly.

Half a dozen U.S.-based tour companies have stepped up to seize the moment. Two of the most active, Long Beach-based Distant Horizons and San Francisco-based Geographic Expeditions, sold spaces on their tours so rapidly this year that they added extra departures. Soudabeh Hassani, marketing director for Pasargad, the Iranian tour company that works with major U.S. companies bringing travelers to Iran so far, reports that from May 1997 to May 1998, her firm brought in 582 Americans.

It's long been legal for Americans to vacation in Iran. It just hasn't been particularly popular during these last 19 years, since the fall of the shah, the sacking of the U.S. Embassy, the rise of a fundamentalist Islamic state and the 444-day ordeal of the hostages who were taken in the revolution's early days.

For the last few years, the U.S. State Department's advice has been to avoid Iran because of "generally anti-American atmosphere." Earlier this year, the State Department labeled Iran the planet's leading government sponsor of terrorism, blaming the Iranian leadership for 13 assassinations worldwide last year. Then in April, the State Department slightly softened its warning to tourists (though they're still urged to stay away). And on June 17, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared that "it is time to test the possibilities of bridging the gap" with Iran.

*

Most American tour groups plot out two-week itineraries and, confronting a country more than twice the size of Texas, use internal flights for most city-to-city travel. But the Geographic Expeditions itinerary that June Berger and her husband, Ron, chose included 22 days on the ground in Iran. Really on the ground.

Between May 9 and June 1, the seven travelers on this Geographic tour, joined by one U.S.-based tour leader, one full-time Iranian guide, a driver--and, for the last half of the trip, me--will cross 4,000 miles of Iran by bus, covering most of it in a 38-seat air-conditioned Volvo.

In the beginning, this plan looked truly daunting. That muggy first night at the Laleh Hotel in Tehran, where the air-conditioning was out and the towels still said Inter-Continental even though that hotel company had cleared out during the Carter administration, Ann Wise was so desperate to cool down that she napped on the tiled floor of her bathroom.

A few days later near Tabriz, the Americans attracted so many onlookers that police cleared a marketplace area to avoid pedestrian gridlock.

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