This past December, tour operator members of the United States Tour Operators Association identified Iran as one of the Top 10 Off-The-Beaten Path Destinations for 2017. These days though, the buzz surrounding the country has turned from excitement to uncertainty following President Donald Trump’s travel restrictions on seven countries, including Iran, and subsequent remarks made by Iran’s Foreign Affairs Ministry to take, as CNN reported, “legal, political and reciprocal measures.”
While Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif didn’t go into details about what measures would be enforced, he did tweet on Jan. 28 that, “Unlike the U.S., our decision is not retroactive. All with valid Iranian visa will be gladly welcomed. #MuslimBan 7/7.”
Last Friday, U.S. District Judge James Robart of Seattle ordered to temporarily halt the implementation of President Trump’s executive order, which, for now, remains in effect after last week’s court decision to maintain Robart’s decision. Still, with looming doubts as to what the outcome of this situation will be, many tour operators have postponed or altogether cancelled upcoming departures to Iran as they await further and more concrete information. For travel advisors, like Susan Farewell, owner of Farewell Travels in Westport, Connecticut, it’s become an ongoing challenge to get one of her client’s trips to Iran fully compensated.
Iran In Demand
American travelers’ interest in Iran is undeniable as evidenced by multiple tour operators citing growing demand for travel to this once overlooked destination.
“Intrepid Travel has seen 35 percent growth in 2016 alone among U.S. travelers,” says Leigh Barnes, North America director for Intrepid Travel. “Iran has been the fastest growing destination in the Middle East. Due to the high demand, Intrepid Travel will double its Iran offerings in 2017 with a total of 40 departures including the brand new Expedition – Iran Northern Explorer.”
Tamar Lowell, CEO of Access Trips, attributes the country’s popularity to “the lifting of sanctions against Iran in early 2016…. For intrepid American travelers, that thaw, combined with Iran’s rich history and culture made it very appealing.”
On the other hand, Warren H. Chang, chief operating officer, Cox & Kings, The Americas, believes “what really put Iran back on the map in terms of a travel destination was the news coverage of the Iranian Nuclear Accord that was signed two years ago. Relationships between our countries were improving and Iran is becoming more accessible, with airlines such as British Airways and KLM reintroducing flights to Tehran; and new hotels are opening.”
“So many people are interested in Iran,” says Farewell, who has been receiving multiple inquires about the country. “The destination has just been on the brink of being rediscovered by a lot of very sophisticated travelers, so this is really kind of tragic that this has happened now.”
Since summer 2016, Farewell has had one client’s 2-week trip to Iran locked in and thought out. With robust insurance and air booked, her client was almost ready for her Feb. 24 departure to Tehran with the MIR Corporation—all that was left to obtain was an authorization code from the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to apply for an Iranian visa.
The Contingency Plan
“We were expecting the approval letter so that we could fill out the visa form any day now. It’s a process, and we did everything—dotted all our i’s, crossed our t’s— on time.”
Intrepid Travel’s local operator and sources in Iran have advised that the country’s Foreign Affairs Ministry has stopped issuing authorization codes for U.S. travelers for the time being, but that anyone who has already obtained a visa will not have any issues entering Iran. Farewell is also being told that the Iranian government has stopped issuing visas and all authorizations in the pipeline are basically on hold. “[My client] is determined to go to Iran and we’re basically just going to reschedule her trip to October…but there are other moving pieces to this trip and that is airfare.”
Daniel Durazo, director of communications for Allianz Global Assistance USA, says his company has not “received any calls from customers who are planning trips to Iran” and need to employ their travel insurance. He says, “It’s currently unclear whether American tourists are now being prevented from traveling to Iran.
“Regarding protests that may delay travel: It’s possible that U.S. citizens may experience travel delays due to protests in the U.S. or abroad. Allianz Travel Insurance may include coverage for delays caused by civil disorder or unrest. Consumers with travel delay coverage may receive reimbursement for the unused part of their pre-paid expenses such as for hotel rooms or tours (less any refunds received) or extra expenses they may incur for meals, accommodations and transportation while they’re delayed, up to the limit of their policy.”
Farewell, however, is not taking any chances and has already begun the process of rearranging her client’s travel plans with some difficulty.
“The airlines first came out with all sorts of goodwill policies about how they are going to refund people who are having trouble because of the ban, but then the windows started to get smaller and smaller on some airlines, including Lufthansa. MIR Corporation is really making good on this because they are going to let us reschedule the trip; it’s really the airlines that I’m going to have to lobby with.”
Farewell’s going straight to the supplier for more information and she advises other agents do the same. So we reached out to a few tour operators with imminent trips to Iran to see how they are handling the situation.
“Cox & Kings has 10 scheduled group tours to Iran this year,” says Chang. “Unfortunately, our clients who were planning on traveling to Iran from the U.S. in April and May have postponed their trips…and are now planning to travel elsewhere. For passengers that were set to travel soon, we are working with them to plan vacations to other destinations, and we look forward to taking them to experience Iran at a later date.”
Phil Otterson, president at Abercrombie & Kent USA, says his company is also having to delay travel to Iran. “Part of the mystique of Iran is that most Americans don’t know what to expect,” says Otterson. “From the archaeological sites, to the accommodations, to the fresh and delicious cuisine, you have the sense that you are witnessing a society on the cusp of change—a rare privilege.” Although the luxury adventure travel specialists have witnessed “strong bookings” for its Iran: Treasures of Persia itinerary, they have decided to cancel the tour’s May departure due to the uncertainty of visa approval for U.S. citizens; however, the company is still planning to operate its fall departures.
“To reassure prospective travelers, we have committed to travel agents that should our program not operate as scheduled, we will refund the cost of land arrangements and air booked through A&K,” says Otterson.
The Waiting Game
For now, the travel industry is simply playing the waiting game when it comes to Iran. Farewell is frustrated with the complications, but is hopeful that she can recoup what her client has lost.
“It could be thousands and thousands of dollars to purchase a non-refundable Business Class, non-changeable ticket. And if you’re getting insurance, you assume that if your clients have to cancel the trip it will be because they are sick or a relative dies,” she says. “These are covered reasons with insurance, but these acts of war and governmental documentations and very, very strange maneuvers are not covered, to my knowledge.
“So this is the part that’s really challenging for me as a professional, it’s that I did all of the right things—getting really good insurance for my client, saving her thousands of dollars by buying a non-refundable ticket knowing that we can elect insurance if she had to cancel due to sickness or a death in the family—but unbeknownst to me there would be a political drama unfold. You make decisions [as a travel advisor] with knowledge, with the idea of why should my client be spending $18,000 for Business Class when they can do it for $4,000.” With no end in sight, Farewell plans to press on and figure this one out on her own. “It can work out, you just have to have a travel agent that is determined to lobby for you.” As for other agents, Intrepid Travel’s Barnes advises them to tell their clients to “Monitor the news for any changes and if Iran does decide to change its immigration policy, check the details with your tour operator.”