By Maysam Bizaer, Al monitor
Since the election of President Hassan Rouhani in 2013, Iran’s tourism industry has witnessed its biggest growth since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The growth saw an even more significant boost following the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in January 2016. Indeed, in recent years, Iran has been among the most frequently suggested travel destinations worldwide. Business Insider and Bloomberg have both named Iran to be among the “Top 50” and “Top 20” destinations to visit in 2017. Official figures show the number of foreign tourists visiting Iran in 2015 topped 5.2 million — up from nearly 3.5 million in 2012 — and the booming industry has brought the country billions of dollars in revenue and created badly needed jobs.
Reihaneh Ahsanizadeh, an English-speaking tour guide in Tehran, said there has been a surge in the number of foreign tourists during the past year. “Cities such as Tehran, Isfahan, Kashan, Yazd, Kerman and Shiraz are the top destinations for foreign visitors,” she told Al-Monitor. Of these cities, Isfahan has been one of the most consistently popular choices for both local and foreign travelers due to its rich and impressive architectural sites, ranging from royal palaces to magnificent bridges. Located in Iran’s interior, Isfahan was once one of the largest and most important cities in West and Central Asia. Its position at the crossroads of the main overland trade routes contributed to its becoming the Iranian capital during the Safavid era (1502-1736). The rule of Shah Abbas (1588-1629) was a particularly prosperous time for Isfahan, and many monuments and buildings for which the city is renowned today were constructed during this time.
Isfahan’s Jame Mosque is considered the oldest and largest of its kind in Iran and a must-see for any visitor. The origins of the mosque are said to go back to the eighth century, and although it burned down in the 11th century, it was rebuilt. Since then, the mosque has been remodeled, enhanced and expanded many times, turning it into a living museum of Islamic and Iranian architecture. The mosque is commonly considered to be the first Islamic building to adapt the four-courtyard (Iwan) layout of Sassanid palaces to Islamic religious architecture. It is also considered the prototype of later mosque designs throughout Central Asia.
Jame Mosque is one of 21 Iranian cultural and natural sites to have been registered on UNESCO’s World Heritage List; it was inscribed as such in 2012. Historic and fascinating bazaars near the mosque’s doors link it to the magnificent Naghshe Jahan Square, which became a World Heritage site in 1979. The square, which used to be a polo field, is one of the largest city squares in the world. It features a number of Islamic buildings including the Masjed-e Shah and the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, both of which are decorated with the famous blue-tiled mosaic designs, considered by many to be masterpieces of Safavid architecture. The square also includes the fascinating Ali Qapu Palace, a six-story building with an elevated terrace, and the beautiful gateway to the old Gheisariyeh bazaar. Martina Bisaz, a Swiss photographer who visited Iran last year, told Al-Monitor, “Isfahan was a wonderful experience with so much history. Ali Qapu Palace and Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque impressed me the most.”
These are just a few examples of the historical landmarks Isfahan has to offer. Kakh-e Chehel Sotun (the “40 Pillars Palace”) was also constructed during the Safavid era to serve as a pavilion for entertaining and a reception hall. Though less famous, the Hasht Behesht Palace (“Eight Heavens”) has no less splendid ceilings, this time decorated with mirrors and the finest Iranian paintings. But Isfahan is not just about mosques and palaces. The city is also famous for the many bridges running over the Zayanderud (Zayande River). The Sio-Se-Pol is the longest and most famous of the 11 bridges in the city; it has a length of nearly 300 meters. “I was very lucky to see the famous bridges with water running in the riverbed. The kindness and hospitality of the Iranian people in Isfahan was incredibly great, like nowhere else in this world,” Bisaz said.
Despite being one of the most important centers of the Islamic world, Isfahan is also known for its religious tolerance. The city is home to a great population of Armenians and Jews. The Vank Cathedral, built during the reign of Shah Abbas II in 1663, is the most famous of the three churches in the city. Although it has a modest exterior, the church has a lavishly decorated interior with a central dome painted with a delicate blue and gold.
Ehsan, a 38-year-old local tour guide who frequently travels to Isfahan, said he has never seen this many foreign tourists in Isfahan or other major cities before. “Nowadays, there are places where the number of foreign visitors is much higher than locals [tourists]. It’s good for our economy,” he told Al-Monitor.
Fereydoun Allahyari, director general of the Isfahan Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Department, told Al-Monitor that the number of foreign tourists visiting Isfahan has increased by 400% over the past four years, giving Isfahan the first rank in terms of annual increase of tourists from abroad. “Last year 250,000 foreign travelers visited Isfahan, and we expect the figure to reach 350,000 by the end of this year,” Allahyari added.
Noting that the average age of foreign tourists visiting Isfahan has dropped — from a previous average of 50 to between 20 and 30 — Allahyari stressed that “our plan is to attract 1 million foreign tourists annually by 2021.”
As the city’s versatility has earned it the nickname “Nesfe Jahan” (“Half of the World”), it appears that Isfahan is on track to tower as one of Iran’s top travel destinations for years to come.
Maysam Bizaer is former editor in chief of the Iran Desk at for Press TV’s web division. He has worked for various local media and has been a contributor for a number of foreign media outlets. On Twitter: @m_bizar