Nation & World

Iranians seek to create a tourist heaven on Persian Gulf island

KISH ISLAND, Iran—Travel brochures advertise this Iranian island as "the pearl of the Persian Gulf." Girls are allowed to ride bikes and smoke water pipes in public. Boys can wear arm-baring muscle shirts and sport the kinds of long hairstyles that in Tehran would draw rebukes from religious authorities.

Lovers hold hands as they stroll the island's pristine beaches at sunset. When the sea breeze blows mandatory head scarves off, a few daring Iranian women don't bother to put them back on.

Kish Island has long been a serene getaway from the strict Shiite Islamic rules that govern the rest of Iran. For decades, thousands of Iranian families and a stream of intrepid foreigners have flocked to this beautiful island for duty-free shopping and a break from Iran's polluted, stifling big cities.

But as the country struggles with an image shaped by its anti-American leadership and the unfolding nuclear crisis, tourist-dependent islanders worry that not even Kish's relaxed visa requirements and the absence of morality police will be enough to lure visitors to one of the Islamic Republic's best-kept secrets.

"People want to be free when they come to the beach, but our constitution says the Islamic Republic must be Islamic," said Behzad Foroutan, 26, who runs a shop that sells Esprit clothing. "So for now we're stuck in a place where women have to wear the scarf if they want to visit."

Kish, with its clear water and historical attractions, is a picture-perfect example of one of Iran's many contradictions: While the Iranian government works hard to enforce strict Islamic codes, a different set of Iranian officials worries about how to market the country as a vacation spot.

Investors are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into sprawling hotels, golf courses and water parks on the island in an effort to diversify Iran's oil-based economy. But the country's image abroad remains a problem. One Iranian travel agent joked that his only hope is combining tours of Kish and North Korea and marketing it as an "Axis of Evil" vacation package. Others said they were trying to convince foreign travelers that the hijab, the head scarf that women must wear in Iran, was exotic.

"With our historical sites and natural resources, we should be in the top 10 destinations for tourists, but instead, we're near the last of the list," said Cyrus Nassiri, 60, who has 35 years of experience in Iranian tourism. "We might as well be Burkina Faso or Chad."

Kish's stiffest competition comes from nearby Dubai, another tax-free shopping paradise that shares Kish's postcard-like vistas—with the added advantage that female visitors don't have to cover their hair and beaches aren't segregated by sex.

The shopping's better in "Buy, Buy Dubai," too, with popular retailers such as IKEA, the Gap and Virgin music stores filling the malls. On Kish, shopping centers offer just a few marked-up designer labels alongside locally produced knockoffs.

Foreign visitors, including Americans but not Israelis, can visit Kish for two weeks without visas. According to the government, 1 million visitors entered Kish last year, though statistics from previous years weren't provided for comparison.

Before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Kish was a relatively untouched Persian Gulf playground reserved for wealthy Iranians with ties to the shah. The government in Tehran planned to build what would've been the Middle East's biggest casino, and the locals recall, wistfully, that the supersonic Concorde made a few Kish-Paris flights.

After the shah was deposed and Iran became a theocracy, Kish was opened to all Iranians. Powerful government-backed contractors continued to build on the island, adding a nature reserve and a dolphin park. Tourists kept coming.

That is, until Dubai, Bahrain and other gulf competitors built glitzy five-star hotels and landed coveted Western retailers that aren't available in Iran.

"All the paradoxes in our religion and politics leave no space for developing tourism," complained Saeed Khalili, 32, who creates computer software to help Iranian hotels streamline guest services. "Maybe just 20 percent of Iranians don't like the bikini side of tourism; the problem is, that 20 percent is ruling the country."

Certainly, Kish looks like no place else in Iran. During this year's annual summer festival, thousands of Iranians listened to live bands and watched folkloric dance troupes, activities that never would be tolerated in Tehran.

Young Iranian women stepped out in capri pants and loose head scarves. Teenage boys teased their hair into elaborate spikes, complaining only that the 100 percent humidity caused their coifs to droop. Families picnicked, shopped and collected seashells on their last holidays before a new school year.

"I have a little girl who wants to take off her scarf, but she couldn't unless we came here," said Farideh Tahir, watching her 11-year-old daughter's uncovered hair blow as she cruised by on a rented bicycle. "I explained to her that there are differences between here and the mainland."

Still, there were reminders that the laws of the Islamic Republic extend even to this picturesque outpost. High walls surround the women-only portion of the beach. Behind them, girls sunbathed topless and showed off thong bikinis. They smoked cigarettes, smeared suntan oil on bare legs and splashed in the sea under the watch of female lifeguards. When they left, they donned the knee-length cloaks and head scarves required by law.

To the Kish Free Zone Organization, the arm of the government that oversees the island, a little modesty is a small price to pay for attractions that include the ruins of an 800-year-old city and an underground network of ancient aqueducts.

The mood is so laid-back, there isn't a single traffic light on the island, boasted Nasrin Saffari, a spokeswoman for the Free Zone. The city imports palm trees at $150 each to beautify the landscape, she said, and the surrounding water is ideal for divers, "a true aquarium, with coral, rare fish and dolphins."

Foreign investors are beginning to show tentative interest in Kish, lured by promises of a 15-year tax exemption on business imports and a hassle-free process of registering companies. Britain's Standard Chartered Bank opened a branch on the island, and employees of international oil giants keep homes here for quick access to rigs in the gulf. An international convention center and an enormous new port are under construction, along with a massive project called "Flower of the East" that will add luxury apartments and rows of new boutiques.

Just don't expect bars and nightclubs anytime soon.

"We are not Dubai, and we are not going to be them," Saffari said. "We have our culture, our values, and that's important to us. We are Muslims, so we prefer to bring our families to a secure, Islamic and modern place."


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.