With its ancient ruins, glittering mosques and spectacular landscapes, Iran is home to many cultural treasures, but ever since the 1979 revolution, these have largely remained unseen by international tourists.
In recent years, the country's most high-profile visitors have been nuclear inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Now, however, the new administration of President Hassan Rouhani is taking steps to open up Iran to foreigners after the gloomy years under his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to bring in much-needed revenue to an economy reeling from years of sanctions.
Mohammad-Ali Najafi, a vice-president and the head of the country's cultural heritage and tourism organisation, said Iran was overhauling its strict immigration rules to ease or abolish visa requirements for most foreign visitors. "[After] the next two or three months, I predict that the number of foreign tourists who come to visit Iran … will greatly increase," said Najafi in a telephone interview.
He admitted that some senior officials had been concerned about the prospect of allowing large numbers of tourists – especially Westerners – in without prior security checks, but said that since Rouhani took office in August Iran's tourism body had secured the officials' support and government approval.
Najafi said the authorities will divide tourists into three categories: tourists in the first group will not need a visa; visitors in the second group will be allowed in without a visa as long as they are part of an organised tour group; and visa procedures for the third group will be eased – meaning that many will be able to obtain a visa on arrival.
"Western countries will most probably be categorised in the second or third group," he said.
The semi-official Isna news agency has reported that, except for 10 countries, including Britain, the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan, foreign tourists will be able to obtain visas on arrival in Iran.
In September, Najafi was with Rouhani as the president travelled to New York for the United Nations General Assembly. That visit marked a huge breakthrough in relations with the US, with the first direct telephonic talks between US and Iranian presidents since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, and renewed hopes that a solution can be found to the stalemate over Iran's nuclear programme.
The trip also opened up the possibility of a tourism boost. "When I was in America, I met with a number of tour operators, mainly those which are operated by Iranians in the US or non-Iranians who have had experience in dealing with Iran in the past," Najafi said.
Iranians have also seen encouraging signs of the thaw at home: high-profile political prisoners have been released and the media face fewer restrictions. Najafi said the new political atmosphere had already encouraged more visitors.
"Over the past two months, many travel agencies have reported to us that the number of foreign tourists who have signed up to their Iran tours has increased a lot," he said.
According to Najafi, four million foreign visitors came to Iran last year, mainly pilgrims from neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Iraq who went to religious sites such as the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, a revered Shia site.
"We estimate that last year our tourism industry helped to add some $2-billion to our revenue," said Najafi. Now, he said, the target was $10-billion a year.
Chinese tourists are a priority. "World figures show that China sends more tourists to visit other countries than anywhere else," Najafi said. "With help from our embassy in China, we have spoken to Chinese tourism officials and we have invited a number of them to come to Iran."
Najafi hoped foreign tourists would become "ambassadors for the goodwill of our country and our people" in the world. "We have a secure and safe country … but we in Iran should take the first step in persuading Westerners that they should have no fear in coming to Iran."
Amos Chapple, a photographer from New Zealand, said the Iran he saw was utterly different from the one represented in the West.
"Every traveller I met felt the same way: they had arrived expecting hostility and danger, but ended up among the most cosmopolitan and generous people in the Middle East," he said. "Having visited three times it's just heartbreaking to see what damage the sanctions are doing to ordinary people who have nothing but goodwill towards America."
Zoe Holman, an Australian journalist who visited Iran for the first time in 2003, said: "Despite the divisions projected in geopolitics by the ‘war on terror' and Iraq war, I was surprised, and humbled, to discover that none of these prejudices seemed to have trickled down to affect Iranian attitudes towards Westerners.
"I was struck by the cosmopolitanism of urban Iranians, their education, open-mindedness and their humorous irreverence for the religious regime."
Unlike tourists, journalists – especially those working for the foreign press – are usually unwelcome. —© Guardian News & Media 2013