London Flights to Iran and Iraq Open up Cradle of Civilization to Tourists

Persepolis 3 - Shiraz - Iran |   -  - As volcanic ash from Iceland’s volcano continues to cause chaos, there is news that access to Iran‘s ancient sites could soon become easier. From June to October this year, IranAir plans to operate a weekly non-stop flight from London Heathrow to Shiraz. The Saturday service will operate alongside the airlines existing three-day-a-week London-Tehran service, and see a return Shiraz-London flight offered every Sunday. Internal flights already operate from Tehran to Isafahan, Mashhad and Tabriz, as well as to Shiraz. The news comes at a time when Iraq is also opening up to tourists. When the ash clears, adventurous travellers will also be able to fly directly from London to Baghdad, making journeys from London to the cradle of civilization a whole lot more civilized than before.

The new Iran flight coincides with an aggressive pricing policy by the airline which is intended to further boost interest in family, tourist and business travel to the country. A publicity campaign, run in conjunction with online flight specialists Alternative Airlines, has seen London-Tehran fares offered for as little as 318, inclusive of taxes and charges. The fares will go some way to making some of the countrys key ancient sites including Persepolis and Naqsh-e-Rostam more accessible and affordable for visitors.

Boom in Iran Visitor Numbers

UK General Manager of IranAir, Daryoush Niknam, said the fares reflected increased interest in Iran: “We understand that whilst the demand for air travel to Iran continues to grow in terms of business traffic, as well as leisure and VFR (visits to family and relatives), it is a price sensitive market, he said. Even with our direct flights, we need to establish IranAir as a year-round price competitive airline.”

Managing Director of Alternative Airlines, John Pope, said there had been a sharp rise in online bookings via the IranAir website: We took twice as many online bookings for IranAir in September (2009) as we did in August and then doubled the number of bookings again for October, he said. With these new fares now available for 2010, we are expecting online bookings to continue to grow rapidly.

Tom Hall, of Lonely Planet, which produces a guide to Iran, described the new flights as good news for Irans burgeoning tourist sector.

New air links, especially those going to the heart Irans historical attractions, will help to raise the profile of the country, he said. However, Iran still has some way to go in comparison with destinations like Jordan, Syria and Lebanon in attracting curious travellers. Places like Shiraz, the gateway to Persepolis, Yazd and Esfahan are iconic names for many travellers, but visiting these places still requires an element of consideration and hesitation. This is the next obstacle for Iranian tourism.

Holidaying in the Axis of Evil

Getting a visa is still the biggest headache and remains unnecessarily bureaucratic and complex. Then comes the perception of political instability, which even if not correct puts people off visiting. Finally, theres convincing would-be travel partners and friends and family that going to a country dubbed one of the Axis of Evil is a good idea.

However he said the country had a lot to offer travellers determined to scale these hurdles. Irans mix of near-Asian hospitality and unique history make it a draw, plus theres the added advantage of a lack of crowds visitors can often find that they get to experience key historic sites all on their own. Its also a little-known ski and trekking destination. This is a rare mix for people wanting to travel to it as a stand-alone destination or pass through on an extended overland route like Istanbul to Kathmandu. On the politics front, for many, the cache of visiting such a controversial destination will be part of the appeal, not a deterrent.

Ancient Mesopotamia, which thrived in the area of modern day Iran and Iraq, is considered by many to be the ‘cradle’ or ‘birthplace’ of civilization. The area lays claim to the first written language (cuneiform) and the first cities, and a wealth of stunning artefacts. Sites and artefacts from both countries have suffered extensive war damage and looting, but there have been concerted – even heroic – efforts to retrieve many artefacts and protect what remains. Army sargeant Sgt. Ronald Peters is attempting to map out a plan to protect the ancient archaeology of Iraq, and marine, boxer, Classics scholar and author Matthew Bogdanos has been instrumental in getting thousands of artefacts returned to the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad.

Read our interview with author Hilary Smith on why she loves Iran, and read her pick of the best places to visit when you get there.