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an Esfahan plaza

Iran tries to shed image, lure tourists

May 22, 1997
Web posted at: 1:22 p.m. EDT (1722 GMT)

From CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour

ESFAHAN, Iran (CNN) -- Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini used to rant and rail against the West. But now his Islamic revolutionary regime is trying to lure Western tourists, as much for badly needed cash as to improve the country's image.

It's not just a marketing ploy.

While many outsiders associate Iran with terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism and the oppression of women, the nation's historical treasures date back more than two millenia. The city of Esfahan, royal capital of the Safavid Dynasty in the late 1400s and 1500s, is home to many well-preserved sites. Its splendors surpass the rest of the region and surprise even well-traveled tourists.

See Esfahan's majesty:
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Mass tourism hasn't caught on yet, but it has picked up over recent years. Visitors come from Japan and Esfahan woman sittingall over Europe to see the sights -- and to satisfy their curiosity about a government and people reputed to be anti-western terrorists.

Multi-lingual tour guides handle their charges with special care, determined to show them what they call the "real" Iran.

"Because of wrong information about our country, they are afraid," said Bhenam Amini, a tour guide. "But afterwards, when they know the truth, they don't want to leave us."

Last year, a half-million visitors came to Iran. The Iranian government is doing all it can to accommodate them, making it quick and easy to get tourist visas and building new hotels and transportation facilities.

But there are rules.

Islamic woman covered

Strict Islamic observance means women must be covered. Not knowing how far to go, some go all the way. And only married couples can check into a hotel together, a far cry from the days prior to the Islamic revolution.

"If [a man] wanted to drink [then], no problem. Want to dance, want to swim ... In olden days, men and women [were] together in the pools," said Hossein Banipour, a tour operator. "Now separate. No drink. No dance. Now they have to respect Islamic culture."

It's a delicate line for a government wanting to make sure there is no clash between the values of revolution and relaxation.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens against travel to Iran. In its most recent travel warning issued October 1995, the department says Iran remains dangerous because of the "generally anti-American atmosphere and Iranian government hostility to the U.S. government." See "Related sites" below for the full report.

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