A recent trip to Iran’s scenic Kish Island in the Persian Gulf was a stark reminder of the opposing currents pulling Iranian society in dramatically different directions. The biggest casualty here is the country’s failed Persian Gulf island tourism project, and a dream that at one point seemed feasible and achievable.

The first time I visited Kish, I was in my early 20s. It was vibrantly beautiful, and — despite the Islamic Republic’s nerve-racking hijab rules — my family and I had fun on the beaches and in the shopping malls, which were well supplied with imported items such as clothes, sportswear, cosmetics and chocolates. The range of goods was incredible in comparison to Tehran, and prices were more reasonable.

Almost two decades later, Kish is a ghost of its former self. The hotels, once among the best in Iran, have deteriorated because maintenance costs are outstripping income from tourists. The island is a “free trade zone,” but little is imported because of international economic sanctions aimed at deterring Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

And the dress laws, although somewhat eased since then, are perhaps even more irritating than before for Iranian women, who have become more aware of breaches of their rights, including harsh demands to cover up. Surfing, sunbathing and sea diving are still possible, but even families are forced to split into male and female groups in different locations.

There are a few good coffee bars, but shopping is no longer much of an attraction. The colorful malls sell only cheap Turkish- and Indian-made clothes, and home appliances are restricted to Iranian-made goods with prices higher than Tehran. Worst of all, most chocolates are close to their sell-by dates because there are so few buyers.

“Nothing is like the good old past anymore,” says a local taxi driver, who moved to Kish from the city of Shiraz two decades ago. “The island used to be full of life, with tourists coming and going all the time. The local economy was working perfectly, and we used to have the best cars and high standards of living.”

First targeted for development in the 1970s, Kish was designated a free trade zone in 1993 as part of a government plan to create an Iranian tourist hub in the Gulf. Hotels and malls were built, but Kish never looked like matching the success of Dubai, one of several emirates that make up the neighboring United Arab Emirates.

“The development plan of the Persian Gulf Islands was first implemented in Kish in 1971, and then something happened, and it was not possible anymore to do so,” says Mahdi Khanali Zadeh, head of public relations for Kish Island. He did not say what it was that made development impossible, but Iran’s Islamic Revolution occurred in 1979.

In 2022, there were hopes that the island would attract visits from people attending the soccer World Cup in Qatar, an independent Gulf emirate, in November and December. But not one hotel room was reserved, in part because of global coverage of Iranian protests following the death of a young woman in September 2022 after she was arrested by the country’s morality police. In addition to the strict rules on mixed bathing, disincentives for foreign tourists include bans on alcohol and hot-weather clothing such as shorts for men.

Khanali Zadeh says Iran is focused on attracting domestic visitors to Kish, or tourists from neighboring countries with cultural similarities, and in many cases, visa-free travel arrangements with Iran. Kish airport has direct flights to Oman, the UAE, Qatar, Armenia and India, while talks about further aviation links are underway between Iran and the Commonwealth of Independent States, a regional government organization that includes Muslim-majority countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.

Yet my recent journey around the island suggests it is unlikely that its economy will improve soon, despite the construction of a new mall with an aquarium, skiing facilities and new shops. Officials are also considering plans to allow tourists to rent private beaches, although it is difficult to see how this could work since Iranian beaches are public property, protected by law from privatization.

Even for Iranians, the cost of traveling to the island and staying there is not worth the trouble since they must still observe unpopular limitations on individual rights. As for foreigners, in early April, the government announced visa exemptions for tourists from 28 countries including Japan, Singapore and India. But expecting them to visit a country that only seems to draw media coverage when there’s a protest or political dispute seems as unrealistic as the very conceptualization of the Kish Island tourism dream.

Source » nikkei