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Iran: Americans Rediscover Off-Bounds Territory

Prague, 12 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Americans are quietly regaining interest in Iran as a tourist destination in the wake of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's invitation to increase cultural exchanges between the two countries.

A handful of U.S. travel agencies have begun offering package tours to Iran's historical sites and are finding that all seats -- despite the high prices -- are quickly filled. At the same time, nationally-respected cultural organizations such as the Asia Society are planning trips to Iran for business and cultural leaders.

Lane Nevares of Absolute Asia, a New York-based travel agency, says his company led three tours to Iran this year, each with from 15 to 20 people. The company plans another three excursions next year.

Nevares says that his clients -- mostly well-traveled Canadians and Americans -- are delighted to rediscover an ancient and gracious civilization which for decades has been off-bounds to them.

"All the people who have returned from our trips have had nothing but very positive, wonderful things to say about the Iranian people and also (about Iran).... it is a very civilized country, Persian history has had a significant impact on the development of culture throughout the world, and there are a lot of ... wonderful sites to go and visit: Persepolis, Isfahan, Shiraz, the citadel at Ban ... Tehran itself is a very cosmopolitan city."

Nevares says that the U.S. tourists pay some $3,500 per person for two weeks in Iran, which includes all expenses except the airfare from New York.

Female tourists are expected in public to keep their heads covered and to wear a long raincoat or jacket that extends below the knee.

Small, private travel companies like Absolute Asia and Distant Horizons, in Long Beach, California, were among the first to take advantage of Khatami's offer in January to increase people-to-people exchanges, even as attempts at renewing diplomatic relations remain on hold.

Budding cultural exchanges got a boost in February when a U.S. wrestling team -- the first U.S. sports team to visit Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution -- received a warm welcome in competition in Tehran. Iran and the United States also met in friendly competition during the World Cup this summer in France.

North American tourists are joining European and Asian tourists who already have been traveling to Iran for some time. Travel experts say that Italians and Japanese are among the most frequent visitors while North Americans still number no more than a few hundred a year.

But Americans are gaining interest quickly. Travel articles about Iran have recently appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. At the same time, cultural centers in New York and other major cities have fueled interest in Iran with recent exhibitions and concert events.

This season, New York is hosting a variety of events focused on Iran. Classical singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian performed at Manhattan's premier concert hall, the Lincoln Center, in September. During this month and next the Lincoln Center is offering a retrospective of films by director Dariush Mehrjui, while the Brooklyn Museum is showing an exhibit of Persian art.

William McKeevor, a spokesman for the Asia Society says such events, some of which were hosted by his organization, reflect a widespread curiosity among Americans to rediscover Iran.

"I think a lot of the cultural organizations have the sense that there has been a freeze on this part of the world and this country with its extraordinary, rich and diverse history and (that) it is time to reopen the relationship, at least on the cultural and educational (level) for now. I think a lot of us involved feel that ... our images of Iran have been sort of frozen in time and it might be a mirror (of the) situation in Iran, that some of their impressions of the West have been frozen in time, and that it is time for each side to take a fresh look."

McKeevor says the New York-based Asia Society will organize a trip to Iran for 15 to 20 of its trustees and senior advisors next April or May. The group of business and cultural leaders will tour cultural sites and meet with officials of the Ministry of Culture.

The Asia Society, founded 40 years ago to educate Americans about Asian culture and contemporary affairs, has already hosted several conferences on Iran at its New York headquarters. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called at a meeting there in July for greater efforts to normalize relations with Tehran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi told a gathering at the same location in September that there could be no Iran-U.S. dialogue without a firm commitment by Washington to end its economic embargo and policy of isolation against Iran.