IT IS not a regular in skiing magazines, but it soon could be. With pistes higher than most European resorts, and lift passes much cheaper, Iran is a bit of a downhill paradise. Its north-facing slopes and high altitudes ensure crisp powder between December and May. After the country’s nuclear deal with the West, not to mention the first heavy snowfall in mid-November, Iranian ministers hope to attract fat-walleted tourists to the white peaks outside the smoggy capital.
The resort of Dizin, the pick of the bunch, boasts lifts that soar to almost 3,600 metres (12,000 feet). A day-pass costs a mere $20. The slopes are agreeably deserted, except on Persian weekends (Thursday and Friday). Where better for adventurous snowboarders to get snow in their beards?
Travelling to Iran has rarely been easier. The government of President Hassan Rohani has simplified the entry system. Citizens of all but 11 countries (America, Britain and Canada top the exclusion list) can obtain a 30-day visa on arrival.
Since the Islamic revolution of 1979 the ruling mullahs have dismissed tourism as a Western indulgence. Foreign holidaymakers, after all, may undermine Iranian morals. Now the regime is having second thoughts. Accor, a French firm, signed a deal in September to open its IBIS and Novotel hotels close to the airport. Rotana, an Abu Dhabi-based firm, is also building four hotels in Iran, to be ready by 2018.
Tourism bosses know they are playing catch-up. The capital’s best hotels date from the Shah’s time. Masoud Soltanifar, a vice-president and the head of Iran’s cultural heritage, handicrafts and tourism organisation, wants to increase the number of visitors from 4m now to 20m by 2025. That will require 20-25 new hotels to be added every year for a decade. A bit of training may also be needed. In Iran it is common for a check-in desk to have a sign that reads: “If you would like your room to be cleaned, please ask.”
With 19 world heritage sites—one, the Imam Square in Isfahan, Iran’s top destination, is second in size only to Tiananmen Square in Beijing—options abound. Isfahan’s Abassi Hotel is a jewel. Here, you will find relaxed foreigners, even Americans, quietly discussing the Middle East over afternoon tea in a shady 300-year-old tree-filled courtyard. After a decade of difficulties, business picked up after July’s agreement under which Iran pledged to rein in its nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief.
Besides skiing, tourists can gawp at ancient mosques, hike in the desert and gorge on cheap caviar. There are snags, however. Women must wear headscarves (though female skiers tend to bend this rule). Men may not wear shorts. Alcohol is forbidden (though booze and indeed drugs do circulate, so the après-ski is not as tame as you might expect). Until sanctions are lifted, credit and debit cards won’t work, so visitors must carry large wads of cash.
“It looks nice from the outside and the people were wonderful but once you got inside it’s a room from 1980,” says a German businessman who recently stayed at the Esteghlal Hotel in Tehran. The welcome rug has been unfurled. But some holidaymakers may find Iran’s aggressive morality police and death penalty for homosexuality a bit off-putting.