Caspian Sea Iran

A new trend is occurring on Iran’s northern Caspian Sea shores – Iraqis – specifically residents of Baghdad.

This uncommon sight to Mazandaran locals and Tehran natives alike has, according to residents of the area, become a growing trend over the past 4 years.

Iran’s Caspian Sea coast is not famous for its international visitors, and over the past thirty years the majority of the inward trade has been by way of Tehran residents taking short breaks from the hustle and bustle of contemporary urban life, four hours south.

Caspian Coast Iran

This upswing in visitors from Iran’s western neighbor, however, is an interesting, but quite unexpected sight. Along the Caspian Sea Highway, the road connecting east-to-west along the southern coast of the inland sea, large American SUV’s with Iraqi license plates speed along at high speeds. These were closely followed with locally rented vehicles, full of young Baghdadi men looking quite lost with the local language.

One local villa rental worker, a Mohammad Rahmon,  in the town of Namak Abroud, west of Chalus, said, “We’ve been receiving people from Baghdad for at least three years, adding, “In the past couple of years, their numbers have exploded.”

Rahmon went on to say that, the typical Iraqi holiday tour group rents villas in groups of four families or above with many of them driving all the way from the Iraqi capital.

The holiday villa employee’s statement was supported by a local taxi driver, who gave his name as Ansari, he said “we’ve seen a steady increase in the numbers of Iraqis coming to our local area, specifically Namak Abroud.” He added that the majority of Baghdad resident arrive in the twilight of the summer period during the Iranian month of Shahrivar (August-September).

Statistics also support the claims by the Caspian region residents. According to official statistics, the number of people visiting from Iraq over the past year has increased by over 200,000 people year-on-year. The annual figure of Iraqis visiting the country now stands at 2 million according to a Iranian Foreign Ministry press release from six months ago.

Figures could be even higher, as officials at Iran’s official Tourism Association say they have no way in understanding the exact figure as many Iraqi’s hold other passports.

Until recently, the majority of visitors coming from Iraq were primarily heading towards Iran’s Holy sites. It is common to see and hear Iraqis visiting the religious seminary of Qom or the shrines in Mashhad. However, the recent upswing in non-religious tourism marks an expansion in traditional tour groups.

But this upswing shouldn’t be seen as a blip on the wider numbers of tourists coming to Iran, in fact it should be seen as part of the wider trend of warming relations between Baghdad and Tehran.

The Rouhani administration has repeatedly stated since it began its term in late 2013 it wishes to boost inbound tourism to Iran. Recent movements about relaxing visa requirements for residents of multiple countries shows that their revised policy is working.

Since the fall of the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, Iraqi religious pilgrims and now summer vacation goers have rediscovered their eastern counterpart.

Iraqi's are learning the pleasure of the Caspian coastline.
Iraqi’s are learning the pleasure of the Caspian coastline.

According to Bing Maps, the average drive from Baghdad to Chalus should take just over 10 hours straight with the route over 1000km. Although a long journey, even some people in Tehran have commented on the increase in Iraqi registered vehicles through the summer months. Suggesting the guests stop on their way to the seaside.

I managed to speak with one of the visiting Iraqis at a roadside pizzeria outside Chalus, he said that he had flown to Tehran, where he rented a car to drive up through the Alborz mountains. The man who did not want to give his name said, “I am so happy to come to Iran, I like the fresh air and rain.”

The current government says it wants to attract 20 million visitors a year by 2025, generating up to $30 billion in revenue over that time frame, and with the growth of regional tourists it may get close to that number.

With the prospects of a more liberal financial system in the coming years, with the likes of Visa and Mastercard being accepted by 2018, according to one banking expert, foreign visitor numbers are likely to increase further.

The recent upswing in relations between Tehran and Baghdad show the increase in visitor numbers may actually come from far closer to home rather than Western Europe as previously suggested by some figures.