Culture and Tourism in Iran: Lessons from Italy

Culture and Tourism in Iran: Lessons from Italy

In this day and age, cultural tourism plays a crucial role in establishing relations between countries. Awareness is spreading about the amazing opportunities that a prudent enhancement of the cultural patrimony can deliver. The connections between diplomatic relations, commercial opportunity, and touristic exchanges are powerfully joined in the idea of cultural tourism.

Iran and Italy are two countries that are both heirs and custodians of a huge historic, artistic, and cultural heritage. In fact the preservation of such heritage has been recently been the basis for close collaboration. Italian archaeologists have worked on sites in Persepolis and Esfahan among others. The Citadel of Bam earned UNESCO World Heritage status shortly after the devastating 2003 earthquake, largely because of the reconstruction efforts of the Italian Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro.

But cultural exchange is much more than a commitment to history. Cultural exchange can be a useful means of supporting the dialogue among civilizations necessary to establish a model for development and growth informed by and linked to a national heritage.

I would summon, in this regard, two scenarios where the Iranian culture has recently been able to introduce itself globally as an absolute excellency, while still showing openness to interaction with other national cultures, starting with Italian culture itself.

The first scenario is exemplified by the film industry, in which Iranian directors have been acclaimed among the world cinematic masters. These master filmmakers include Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose works have been applauded and awarded by the most important international film festivals, including the Venice Film Festival. Jafar Panahi triumphed in 2000, winning the Leone D’Or for his film The Circle. In 2008, Abbas Kiaorastami won a special honor for his remarkable contribution to cinema.

Iranian contemporary art has also made its way to Italy and the city of Ferrara, where, in 2010, six Iranian world-renowned women artists had exhibited their work as part of the Fourteenth Biennale Donna.

Reflecting on the origins of Iranian contemporary art, I also think about the exceptional importance of Iranian craftsmanship which constitutes a heritage of incredible artistic value by itself, and which should definitely be more acknowledged and appreciated worldwide, as it is one of the foundations of Iran’s national identity.

These are just a few examples of the relevance and the richness of the Iranian civilization, which could become the premise for a virtuous exchange between the civilizations of countries—even those seemingly different in regard to sensibilities and culture.  

On this point, I quote a passage from the memorable speech given by President Mohammed Khatami to the United Nations on September 5th, 2000, during a round table about dialogue among civilizations:

In order to provide natural unity and harmony in form and content for global culture and to prevent anarchy and chaos, all concerned parties should engage in a dialogue in which they can exchange knowledge, experience and understanding in diverse areas of culture and civilization. Today it is impossible to bar ideas from freely travelling between cultures and civilizations in disparate parts of the world. However, in the absence of dialogue among thinkers, scholars, intellectuals and artists from various cultures and civilizations, the danger of cultural homelessness seems imminent. Such a state of cultural homelessness would deprive people of solace both in their own culture and in the vast open horizon of global culture. 

While I was serving my country as Minister of Cultural Assets and Activities and of Tourism, I went on an official trip to Iran. On that occasion— and during a subsequent trip— I had the chance to recognize and appreciate the greatness of the Iranian cultural heritage. My experience made it clear that by leveraging strength of its cultural heritage Iran could stand to develop a valuable tourism model. As my former ministerial title demonstrates, the relationship between culture and tourism has been vital to Italy’s economy. The tourism sector contributes about 10% of the country’s overall GDP.  Iran ought to follow in the Italian model to protect its cultural heritage, even if the pursuit of economic interests is a primary aim.  

The bond between culture and tourism in Iran is clear and undeniable. Iranian artistic and environmental heritage represents one of the key resources for the creation of a sustainable tourism model, as it defines the country's identitarian traits as an attractive destination. If Iran’s heritage is properly utilized as one of the country’s fundamental touristic levers, inbound tourism would become an exceptional way to guarantee international awareness about its cultural assets, promoting efforts and providing funding to preserve and protect cultural heritage. The fruitful link between culture and tourism would emerge as a virtuous cycle, one that can enhance the potentialities of both areas, without undermining their complex and specific peculiarities.

I firmly believe that tourism related policies in Iran should follow the path of environmental, cultural and social sustainability in order to produce vital income and employment. Looking to successful practices in Italy would be my best possible advice. Future Iranian tourism policies must be correctly devised, so that development is truly respectful of the artistic and historical landscape.

In this way, Iranian tourism could represent both a means of economic growth and means to present a new image of Iran, which might overcome the prejudices towards the country to which Western nations are often induced. The point is to consider every cultural asset as a unique public good, deserving of protection and investment.

Such a commitment, by the way, is already written in the history of Iran, with its tradition of public endowments. Devising renewed commitment to public goods, and how they ought to be developed involves the analysis of the whole Iranian political, economical and social system. Cultural and environmental assets cannot be mere treasures, tightly owned and exploited. 

Tourists are becoming harder to please as consumer characteristics like income, tastes, and habits diversify. Such demand could be only satisfied by similarly diversifying the possible combinations of Iran’s cultural offerings, adjusting them to more and more complex requests. To do this work, private enterprise will need to bring its energy and expertise to the table, forging new public-private partnerships. It would be also advisable to enact specific tourism policies, which promote innovation through the application of new technologies.

The future of Iran's inbound tourism will be determined by the ability to build networks, which must reflect the true potential of a country both rich in history and eagerly awaiting the future. Government bodies, private businesses, community organizations, academic institutions, and other stakeholders must actively seek synergies in the spirit of cooperation. The project to preserve and promote Iranian cultural heritage is both crucial and thrilling. 



Photo Credit: Farzad Gavari

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