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Iran to relax visa requirements amid tourism boom

By Reza Sayah, CNN
updated 3:47 PM EST, Wed November 6, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Long-isolated Iran to ease visa requirements amid tourism boom
  • Iran's new president Rouhani has struck a moderate tone with West since taking office
  • Tourism workers in Iran say numbers of visitors "increasing day by day"

Tehran, Iran (CNN) -- Tour bus driver Rasoul Mousavi has been seeing less and less of his wife this month. Mousavi says a sharp increase in tourists has kept him so busy that for four nights in a row he did something his wife doesn't like very much -- he showed up late for dinner.

"My wife isn't very happy but during the past few years, I've rarely seen it this busy," Mousavi said. "Thank God it's getting better. We're getting more tourists."

Mousavi's heavy workload comes amid a push by Iran's new president Hassan Rouhani to attract more foreign travelers to Iran, home to some of the world's oldest civilizations and historical sites that date back several thousand years.

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Iranian officials have announced plans to ease visa requirements for most foreign visitors within the next several months. According to state media, once the new visa guidelines are in place, tourists from most countries will be able to pick up their visas on arrival, with the exception of travelers from at least ten countries -- including the U.S. and the UK.

Iran used to be a top destination in the region, but the 1979 Iranian revolution delivered a huge blow to the tourism industry. The number of tourists dropped sharply, due in large part to Iran's political and economic isolation and warnings by Western governments that Iran was a rogue and dangerous nation led by a radical regime

President Rouhani is clearly looking to leave a more positive impression on the international community with a campaign to solve Iran's nuclear dispute and improve relations with the West.

According to the Iranian Cultural Heritage, Tourism, and Handicrafts Organization, Iran attracted roughly four million tourists last year and generated about $8 billion in revenue. Tourism officials predict less restrictive visa guidelines and Rouhani's policy of moderation will help those numbers increase significantly.

"The number of tourists has been increasing day by day and we're feeling the increase," says Mohammad Eslami, a tour guide for the Tehran-based Azadi International Tourism Organization.

On a typical day in Tehran it's not hard to find tour buses filled with tourists weaving through the capital's historic neighborhoods.

"People are amazingly warm and generous here. It's been a wonderful," says Ryan Hendricks, who is visiting Iran with his wife and daughter from the Netherlands.

"What we see of Iran on TV news is not true," says Finnish tourist Janna Kauppinn. "This is a country full of history with wonderful people and amazing food."

The apparent comeback in Iran's tourism industry could mean more late nights for Mousavi. But the tour bus driver says that as long as tourists keep coming and helping the economy and leaving with fond memories, that's perfectly fine with him and his wife.

"I really shed tears of joy because they come here and see Iran, and they leave with pride," he says.

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