The landscape of Iran is diverse, providing a range of activities from hiking and skiing in the Alborz mountains, to beach holidays by the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. Over the next five years a number of tourism-friendly infrastructure projects will be undertaken on the Persian Gulf island of Kish, which at present attracts around 1m visitors per year, the majority of whom are Iranian.
The most up-to-date figures from the World Tourism Organisation for the origin of visitors to Iran show that building up visitors from the Islamic and wider Asian world will have to start from a low base. Around three-quarters of those entering Iran in 1999 came from Europe.
The majority of the 300,000 tourist visas granted in 2003 were obtained by Asian Muslims, who presumably intended to visit important pilgrimage sites in Mashhad and Qom. Several organized tours from Germany, France, UK and other European countries come to Iran annually to visit archaeological sites and monuments.
According to Iranian officials, about 1,659,000 foreign tourists visited Iran in 2004 - although government statistics don't distinguish between tourism, business and religious pilgrims; most came from Asian countries, including the republics of Central Asia, while a small share (about 10%) came from North America and the European Union including Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, France, Belgium. The most popular tourist destinations are Esfahan, Mashhad, and Shiraz. There is undoubtedly great scope for increased visitors from the Islamic world, and possibly also from non-Muslim countries with which Iran is developing business and political links, such as China and India.
From 2004, the country experienced a 100-percent growth in foreign tourist arrivals until mid-2008 when the number of foreign arrivals surged up to 2.5 million. Specially, there has been an enormous increase in the number of German tourists traveling to Iran in 2008.
The World Travel and Tourism Council claims that business and personal tourism rose by 11.3% and 4.6%, respectively, in real terms in 2007, with the growth in personal tourism only modestly below that of the preceding year.
In 2011, most of Iran’s international visitors arrived in Iran solely for the purpose of leisure travel. Leisure tourists arriving from abroad are also often relatives of Iranian citizens or expatriates residing outside of Iran returning to visit. Another key segment of international arrival traffic are pilgrims come to pay a visit to one of the many holy sites scattered throughout the country.
The number of international arrivals has been steadily increasing, up from 2.2 million people in 2009 to 3.6 million in 2011, with per capita spending of $1,850 per visit on average.