Diplomatic Pouch / September 6, 2016
By Larry Luxner
Now that Americans can book online trips to Cuba and fly there nonstop from half a dozen U.S. airports, the list of prohibited countries just got a little smaller.
But the Islamic Republic of Iran still has that “forbidden fruit” feel to it — and with good reason. The State Department considers the Middle Eastern nation, along with two others — Sudan and Syria — to be a state sponsor of terrorism, and diplomatic relations between Washington and Tehran have been frozen ever since the hostage crisis of 1979.
All the more reason to wonder why a group of D.C.-area tour guides would consider traveling to Tehran next year to attend the 17th annual convention of the World Federation of Tourist Guide Associations.
The answer: an ancient civilization, fascinating culture, great food, traditional Persian hospitality and a genuine curiosity about Americans that are increasingly discovering Iran as a tourist destination.
That, in fact, was the subject of a gathering Sept. 1 at the Chantilly, Va., home of Sam and Mahvash Keshmiri, sponsored by the Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington, D.C. The “Road to Iran” kickoff event featured Persian music, dance, poetry and traditional costumes — as well as a sumptuous dinner featuring such delicacies as rose water sharbat, fig-leaf dolmeh, saffron rice with barbecued beef and lamb, fresh herbs and vegetables with feta cheese, and Persian soda yogurt.
Sweet desserts ranged from Persian kolocheh (varieties of small pastries made with rice flour or chickpea flour) to saffron rice pudding with pistachios and cinnamon.
“Since there is no Iranian Embassy in Washington, it was a tourist guide who opened her home and became the ambassador. This was so special. We got to experience Iranian culture first-hand,” said veteran tour guide Maricar Donato, a guild official who plans to send at least a few of the local organization’s members to the WFTGA gathering, set for Jan. 29 to Feb. 1 in Tehran.
The guild usually holds its meetings at embassies, but Iran is represented in the United States only by an Iranian Interests Section — officially an annex of the Pakistani Embassy. Its status is very similar that of the Cuban Interests Section, which for years was officially an annex of the Swiss Embassy until last year, when Washington and Havana finally established diplomatic relations as well as full-fledged embassies in each other’s capitals.
Coincidentally, the Iran-themed dinner took place less than 24 hours after direct commercial flights between the United States and Cuba resumed, following a 50-year hiatus. Yet there are still no direct flights linking U.S. airports and Iran — and the Iranian government certainly doesn’t make it easy for American citizens to get visas. They must go through an arduous authorization process that can take up to a month, and those with Israeli stamps in their passports or evidence of having crossed into Israel from Egyptian or Jordanian border checkpoints will automatically be denied Iranian visas.
Complicating matters, several prominent Iranian-Americans — most notably Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian — have served long prison terms for spying and other arbitrary charges. On the other hand, bilateral relations have taken a turn for the better since last year’s Congressional approval of the controversial Iranian nuclear deal.
“I know that people are very fearful of what may happen in Iran, but I think that as tour guides, we represent the lowest possible threat to their government,” Donato said. “We’re trying to get as many tour guides as possible to come — not only from D.C. but from around the United States. We are not going as reporters or journalists, but as guides, as ambassadors of peace. So hopefully we won’t be threatened.”
The world body meets every two years, attracting 300 to 400 delegates each time; previous conventions have taken place in Prague, Macau, Tallinn, Bali, Cairo, Melbourne, Hong Kong, Montreal, Singapore and Tel Aviv, among other cities.
“It’s like the Olympics. Many countries bid for the next convention,” said Donato. “In 2015, three countries — Iran, Singapore and Denmark — bid for the 2017 convention, and Iran got 50 percent of the votes.”
The Iran Federation of Tourist Guide Associations plans to reimburse visa expenses for the first 50 participants to sign up; in the case of American citizens, that visa costs $90. It also plans a post-convention tour that includes visits to the cities of Shiraz, Persepolis, Yazd and Esfahan.
Jahandad Memarian, owner of Apadana Journey — a D.C. travel agency that arranges trips to Iran — said that in the last six months, nearly 10,000 Americans have traveled to Iran without incident. That doesn’t include an estimated 40,000 Iranian-Americans who don’t need visas to travel there.
“It’s totally safe and Americans are welcome. From any aspect, Iran is wonderful,” said Memarian, estimating that a two-week package including hotels, meals, tour guide and visa — but not airfare to and from Iran — costs around $4,500 per person, double occupancy.
Jerry Sorkin, a Philadelphia travel specialist whose TunisUSA agency has been bringing Americans to Iran since 2009, said his programs benefit private Iranian individuals and do not constitute “an endorsement of Iranian government policies” — many of which remain officially hostile to the United States.
“From the south in Shiraz to the desert town of Yazd, you will have the opportunity to see this country of endless historical sites, cultural interest and warm people,” said Sorkin. “Hopefully, exchanges through travel and cultural programs can help bridge a wall of suspicion on both sides, while enjoying Persian cuisine and first-class hotels.”
For more information on the 2017 convention, visit the WFTGA’s website.