Why you should care

Because experiencing the world broadens the mind.

The strangest thing happened the other day as we chatted with a Beyoncé look-a-like at a hip-hop club in Turkey. When I asked where she was from, she said she was on vacation from Iran. An Iranian tourist? That’s right, and you don’t have to be a Sasha Fierce to be one either. Although they may not have as many passport stamps as German or Japanese travelers, Iranians are clearly on the move. While you were making plans to finally see Argo, they were pouring out of the exits: 2 million Iranians visited Turkey in 2010, up 400 percent from 2000.

Although they may not have as many passport stamps as the Germans or Japanese, Iranians are clearly on the move.

Hassan Rohani, Iran’s relatively moderate new president, is seen as pragmatic, and there are hints that he might relax political restrictions. But it’s too early to tell what if any impact he will have on Iranian travel.The most popular destinations for Iranians going abroad are neighboring, less repressive countries like Turkey, Armenia (120,000 per year), and Kurdistan (1 million per year), though large numbers are increasingly flocking to places like Thailand (100,000 per year), and Malaysia (160,000 per year).

Malaysia Travel

Malaysia by night

Mahmud Ali Reza and his family visit Armenia a few times every year. Mahmud explained to the Mohabat News that even though there are “resort areas in Iran like the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf … first of all, it’s expensive to go there, and, secondly, you can’t relax with your whole family. My wife can’t swim in the sea there — she can only go in covered from head to foot in the hejab.”

What’s really drawing Iranian tourists overseas in record numbers is not just the promise of swapping burqas for bikinis, as you might expect. Instead, it’s shopping — the opportunity to buy brand-name clothing and other merchandise they can’t get at home. And so, to major shopping centers in Istanbul they go. Many abandon their homeland annually for Novruz, the 13-day Persian New Year celebration in late March, to celebrate at places stocked with alcohol and offering private pop music concerts featuring performers like Israeli singer Ishtar Alabina — aka the “Queen of the Middle East” but considered contraband in Iran. The Latin poet Horace may have said that “they change their climate, not their soul, who rush across the sea,” but he didn’t have to live in 21st-century Tehran.

As you see in the last 20 minutes of Argo, leaving Iran is still a game of chance, daring for many and fraught with complications and random restrictions — minus the neat, happy Hollywood ending. One of the Islamic republic’s favorite ways to address its critics is to restrict travel. Large portions of the population may be denied exit at any time for reasons ranging from security to taxes to politics to, yes, no reason at all.

Many do not even learn of a restriction until their passports are confiscated as they prepare to board a plane. The ease of exiting the country is also impacted by larger geopolitical disputes. Iranian tourist numbers declined significantly last year in the wake of Tehran taking umbrage at Turkey’s hard-line stance on Syria and the economic sanctions levied by the EU.

In a sad irony, Western sanctions have probably taken the biggest bite out of Iranians’ travel in the past year. The White House is currently battling the sanctions issue with Congress, asking lawmakers to give it time to diplomatically address concerns over Iran’s nuclear capability instead of imposing more economic hardships.

Existing privileges are always on the verge of being withdrawn: The Iranian parliament recently contemplated requiring that single women under 40 obtain permission from their father or male guardian before they can acquire passports.

A disheartening development, but the fact remains that Iranians are hooked on travel and will persist in exploring the wide world beyond their borders. Shop till you drop, baby.

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