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Thursday, 7 June, 2001, 15:30 GMT 16:30 UK
Inside Iran: Tourism hopes of Caspian resorts

By Monica Whitlock in Bandar Anzali on the Caspian Sea

Since President Khatami came to power four years ago the number of foreign tourists arriving in Iran has shown a steady increase.

Tour parties and independent travellers, once a rare sight in Iran, are now much more visible in the big cities - encouraged by Iran's new image of greater openness.

Most visitors concentrate on archaeological and religious sites. Some also reach the Caspian coast - for many years a favourite spot for Iranian holiday makers who make a bolt from the city smog at weekends.

Caspian resorts do not compete for the usual beach market. Mixed swimming is not allowed and the hotels, most of which were built before the revolution, are down at heel.

New promotions

Still, foreign tourism is growing here. Jihan Bin of the local tourist board says that every year a few more foreigners come. Soon, she hopes, her large empty offices will be buzzing with visitors.

If we have more tourists, we can sell our carpets very easily here

Translator Massoud
"They come from Italy, Germany, France, Belgium and Arabic countries, for example Qatar, Kuwait," she said.

When asked if this resort would develop Western facilities such as swimming pools and tennis courts she added: "We try but this is not the things that tourists like to have here because they have these things in their countries."

Smart new posters everywhere promote cultural attractions that the tourist board hopes will boost the modest charms of the Caspian.

Cave attraction

President Khatami made a special visit last year to the north and drew attention to the unexploited potential of Kandovan or Sugar Loaf - a dramatic landscape of natural caves much like Cappadocia in Turkey.

The residents live in the caves and try to sell their products to visitors. Translator Massoud says there were more foreign visitors after President Khatami was elected.

"Naturally if we have more tourists, we can sell our carpets very easily here and the same thing happens with agriculture - we can sell our products here very easily and it will be very good for us," he said.

Tourism in Iran is about more than money. Few young Iranians have been abroad themselves because of the high cost of travel and visa restrictions.

Each visitor brings a welcome flavour of the outside world many have only seen on television.

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