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American Tourists Get Warm Welcome in Iran

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Nancy Dockry of Beverly Hills, the most beautiful sight in Iran was Bam’s 9th century sandcastle. The most touching encounter was with her tour guide, a war hero who took her to the battlefield where he was maimed fighting Iraq. And the lightest moment was at the Mashad shrine, where she was shooed from a men’s area by guards armed with feather dusters because they’re not allowed to touch women.

But for Dockry, an intrepid traveler to more than 100 countries, the warmth of the Iranian people made the deepest impression.

“For a change, it was wonderful to be in a country where they actually like Americans,” she said.

A generation after the U.S. Embassy was stormed and 52 citizens were held for 444 days, Americans are back in Iran. And so far, no one seems to mind. Far from it.

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“I just love those American accents,” cooed Massoud Dayyani, assistant manager of the Laleh Hotel, host to a number of U.S. tour groups. Formerly the Intercontinental, the Laleh was renamed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Like all the big hotels here, it until last year had a huge “Down with the USA” sign across its lobby walls.

Now, the rhetoric and hostility from an angry revolution are rapidly disappearing.

Abbas Abdi was one of the student leaders who plotted the U.S. Embassy takeover. Today, a graying Abdi says he would not object to the former hostages’ return.

“If they come as private citizens, I have no problem,” he said with a shrug. “They are welcome.”

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The return of tourists is part of a broader comeback for American culture. Leonardo DiCaprio is the current teen heartthrob here, just as pirated copies of “Titanic” top the black market for video rentals. T-shirts from the Chicago Bulls and L.A. Lakers are wardrobe staples among Iranian boys who keep up with NBA scores now reported in Iran’s press.

U.S. news is a mainstay in the media. Reports on President Clinton’s problems with Monica S. Lewinsky, Paula Corbin Jones and Gennifer Flowers led Iran’s parliament to introduce legislation to limit publication of certain kinds of female pictures.

Since President Mohammad Khatami in January called for people-to-people exchanges with the United States to “break the wall of mistrust,” Tehran’s press has fiercely competed for interviews with U.S. officials, which are splashed across front pages.

Golam Reza Shirazian, a conservative member of parliament, went one step further by suggesting visits to Iran by members of Congress.

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“Why not? They are representatives of the American people,” he said in an interview.

But for a regime that once warned about the dangers of “Westoxication,” the most striking change is the influx of Western tourists, especially Americans.

“We had just a few Americans come before President Khatami’s election. But now anyone is welcome,” said Mansour Khoddami, the ebullient new head of tourism.

“With any small green light, we’d have a lot more Americans coming to visit,” Khoddami said. “We’re already working on 3 million maps of Iran in English. And we’re working toward making tourist visas available in two or three days.”

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In the past, it often took weeks--or, for journalists, even months--to secure a visa.

The process is much like the opening up of China after decades of cutting off the outside world--although with a few distinctly Iranian twists.

Female visitors must conform to the modest Islamic dress code, including head cover. Dorothy Gibbons of San Francisco, who came to Iran because it has been on her travel list for 40 years, said she did not mind.

“I was a little self-conscious at first, but I got used to it. It covers a couple of my little bald spots, and I don’t have to worry about a bad hair day,” said Gibbons, 78, who works at the Palo Alto Medical Research Foundation.

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Some American adaptations of hejab--loose-fitting clothes that are supposed to cover curves--make female visitors look like bag people rather than well-traveled tourists. But other visitors--wearing floppy hats rather than scarves and long shirts rather than coats--are actually setting precedents about what is acceptable in the Islamic republic.

Tour guides offer special instructions for conduct: Unrelated men and women must not shake hands, embrace or otherwise touch in public, for example.

“Basically, we tell them, ‘When in Tehran, do as the Tehranis,’ ” said Steve Rynecki of Distant Horizons, a Long Beach travel agency that specializes in exotic tours.

“With some trepidation,” Distant Horizons planned to take two groups to Iran last year, but the trips went so well and the demand was so high that the agency ended up taking seven, agent Ruth Kennison said. At least 10 groups will take the eight-city tour this year.

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Iran has spectacular sights--the 2,500-year-old ruins of Persepolis and the perfectly preserved medieval city of Bam crafted from the nearby desert’s red clay.

Yet interviews with Americans in Iran this spring indicated that the main attraction was interaction with Iranians.

Arlene Wolff’s money and passport were stolen in a Shiraz taxi, but she still came away impressed, especially by the police.

“Until this trip I thought the Irish were the warmest people on Earth. But now I think Iranians are more hospitable,” she said.

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Tourism reflects the scope of Iran’s recent social relaxation.

In the revolution’s early years, foreigners daring to bring playing cards would have them ripped up one by one during airport searches. Chessboards were confiscated because of the royal pieces. Getting through immigration could take hours.

This year, an Iranian team is competing in an international chess tournament. At customs, the main scrutiny now is for pornography and drugs. Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport can be as fast--or slow--as New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Not everything has changed. A Tehran tour is not complete without a stop at the old U.S. Embassy, where the corner shop for years sold volumes of classified cables captured in the so-called Den of Spies. Now it peddles religious tracts.

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But the tall brick wall surrounding the compound still has one of the many slogans painted in Farsi and English after the seizure. “We will make America face a severe defeat,” it says in chipping paint.

And while most of the old anti-American propaganda on billboards and buildings is gone, one of the most offensive is still plastered on the side of an eight-story building. The stars are replaced by skulls and the red stripes become missiles raining down on Iran. After almost fading away, it was repainted after reports that the Pentagon had drawn up plans to retaliate against Iran if it were involved in the 1996 bombing of a U.S. compound in Saudi Arabia.

Not everyone in government is pleased with the rising American profile. Conservatives in Iran’s parliament have grumbled loudly recently about “this to-ing and fro-ing by U.S. agents.”

The foreign minister has been summoned by parliament to explain recent visits by various American “political and security agents,” including various noted U.S. Mideast officials, former officials and the Australian American media magnate Rupert Murdoch, whose secret visit to Iran last month was confirmed by the government.

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But the new tourism also reflects a growing realism in Iran, where budget worries now often supersede ideological purity. With oil revenue expected to drop this year to $10 billion, from $16 billion in 1996, tourism is a budding alternative source of income. Before the revolution, it was a top money-maker.

“Tourism worldwide produced $488 billion in 1997--without counting [transit] tickets. The number of foreign tourists around the world is about 650 million,” Khoddami said. “From a historical point of view, we are one of the world’s top five attractions--along with Egypt, Italy, Greece and India. So we want our share of this market.”

There is, however, an exception to the new thaw: Later this month, Iran and the United States will have one of their biggest face-offs since the embassy seizure. The battlefield this time is a soccer stadium in Lyons, France, where national teams will confront each other in the first round of the World Cup.

“It seems everyone wants the two countries to meet--even in sport,” Abdi said with a sigh.

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For some Iranians, the stakes are far more important today than in 1979. Soccer is such a passion--now far more inflammatory than politics--that the mere act of qualifying for the World Cup last winter sparked street demonstrations, all-night revelry and an outpouring to greet the victorious team’s return from Australia that included 5,000 women gate-crashing a stadium from which they are usually excluded.

“I think it would be better for both countries if there is a tie,” Abdi said. “If Iran loses, people will again be angry at the Americans, but this time it won’t last 20 years. It’ll only last a week.”


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