In a building full of shops selling nightgowns and wedding dresses, three young women in the modest offices of the Zhivar Tourist Agency chat up clients about prospective vacation spots in Iran.
Business is good. The falling value of Iran's currency, the rial — pummeled by international sanctions — has forced the country's middle class to turn inward for travel. Foreign destinations are expensive and often difficult to visit with Iranian passports, but everyone wants to get away occasionally.
Iranians driven by economic necessity are rediscovering the natural and historic landmarks of their diverse country, which for millenniums was at the crossroads of various civilizations.
No-frills eco-tourism appears to be a thriving, if limited, sector amid Iran's generally bleak economic landscape. Zhivar, one of a number of ecologically minded boutique travel agencies that have sprouted up, has seen its clientele quadruple in three years, to more than 2,000 in 2013.
Vacation packages range from one- or two-day bus trips to desert preserves, featuring trekking and stargazing, for as little as $10 to much more elaborate itineraries, such as stays at ski resorts. This vast nation has no shortage of attractions: islands in the Caspian Sea; the towering peaks of the Alborz Mountains; magnificent historic sites such as Persepolis, seat of the ancient Persian empire; and Esfahan, famous for its Islamic architecture.
"Even if I could travel [abroad] I wouldn't do it without seeing all the beautiful and historic places in my own country," said Mehrdad Rahmani, 25, a postgraduate architecture student who recently booked a trip to hike in the forests near the Caspian Sea.
Though many eco-tourists appear to be young, some older Iranians have also been rediscovering their homeland.
"The kind of tours we like to take would break the bank if we went abroad because of the rial's fall against the dollar and the euro," said Maryam Pirouz, a retiree who, with her husband, Mohammad, often books local travel. "But it's also a blessing in disguise, so that the young can know their country better."
Hoping to cash in on the modest boom are mostly young, well-educated entrepreneurs whose initial career goals had nothing to do with being tour operators. Many of Iran's college graduates face an arid employment landscape offering low wages, if work can even be found. With such limited options, many grads have started businesses in fields unrelated to their studies.
The three young women working the phones at Zhivar's second-floor offices along central Tehran's Zardousht Street are an unlikely trio.
Golnar Ramesh, 25, the agency's assistant manager and a civil engineering graduate from Tehran University, casually opened the door and invited a visitor inside the office, its walls covered with posters and maps of natural and historic sites in Iran.
Zhivar, which means "life" in Kurdish, was established five years ago by Ramesh's brother Siavash and a friend, Ramesh explained as she brought over a tray of the ubiquitous Arabic coffee and Iranian tea. The concept was to incorporate Western-style eco-tourism practices, including guided tours of sites not found on the agendas of many travel agencies. Trips would be arranged to suit people's interests. The firm recruited well-educated employees who could act as idea generators and tour guides, not just telephone reservation-makers. The idea took off.
Since then, the staff has grown from two people to 10. They make bookings by phone one day and act as tour guides the next, hiking with clients and pointing out trees and unusual birds.
Ramesh's co-workers on a recent day were Sonia Sanjari, a theater graduate, and Azam Mahmoudpour, who holds a master's degree in sports pathology and wanted to be a university lecturer. Each attended a six-month crash course on the flora and fauna of Iran as well as its reserves, known as geoparks. The knowledge was put to good use during Nowruz, Iran's two-week spring holiday that began in late March and is among the busiest seasons for tour operators.
"Come autumn, we will explore Hormuz island [in the Persian Gulf] and see the erosion of the ancient layers of the earth and how native people lived," Sanjari said. "Artists also use coral deposits and pebbles to make temporary mosaic carpets," she noted, seeming to sense a lure for arts-minded clients.
Repackaging Iran's natural attractions for contemporary customers is all part of the job for the new generation of eco-tour operators. "We're always on the lookout for new and untrodden natural wonders in the islands of the Persian Gulf, the deserts or the northern forests," Ramesh said.
The firm is also branching out to offer "Iranological" tours. Clients can learn about Iran's many ethnic and religious groups, including Arabs, Kurds, Jews, Baluchi and Azeris. Future packages may also focus on the nation's rich musical heritage, and even the traditional medicine pioneered by Ibn Sina, a 10th century scientist and philosopher. "Wherever our customers' curiosity takes them," Ramesh said.
Though the agency still books foreign tours, that now-limited demand isn't enough to sustain the company.
"We even arranged for Orhan Pamuk and Nazim Hikmet Ran tours of Istanbul," said Ramesh, referring to Turkey's Nobel Prize-winning author and iconic late poet, respectively. "But it's just not enough until the rial bounces back to what it was three years ago."
Mostaghim is a special correspondent.