Tehran is a vast, low-rise, Albuquerque of a city in the desert shadow of the soaring Elborz Mountains. The billboards that line its traffic-choked streets either honor heroic martyrs fallen in the eight-year war with Iraq or advertise low-budget, Rambo-style, anti-American action movies. To the non-reader of Arabic script and Persian language, it is difficult to tell one from the other. The fierce face of the late Ayatollah Khomeini glares from posters and signs everywhere.
Not, at first glance, a major American vacation destination.
But by the end of our first afternoon in town, we hear about what is very nearly the first American tour group to venture into Iran since the revolution in 1979.
We find them that evening at the former Tehran Hyatt. Most of the major hotels in Tehran were built by the big Western hotel chains, then nationalized in the 1979 Islamic revolution. They have new names, but they are mostly still known as the former Hyatt, Hilton, or Sheraton. Arrows were installed on the ceiling of each room pointing toward Mecca. But the toilets in the former Sheraton are still American Standard.
Janet Moore is president of Distant Horizons cultural travel company based in Long Beach, Calif. She agrees to meet us in the lobby. An urbane woman who has brought an Oxford University scholar of Persian history along with her group, she is in the final evening of leading her first tour group through Iran.
These are the pioneers, the first trickle of what Iranian officials hope will be a flood. One tourism official here estimates that in the 18 years since the Islamic revolution, American tourists have numbered "not more than 200." These have mainly been the odd adventurous backpacker who manages to get an entry visa and a few determined scholars of Persian antiquity.
Another California company, Geographic Expeditions, led a group to Iran in 1993 when the 15-year ban on Americans was lifted, but getting visas was still difficult and unpredictable. So they postponed further trips until this coming fall. A group of American women living in Saudi Arabia came to see the Silk Road in 1995.
In the past two years, Iranian officials have begun tentatively trying to send a friendlier message: Folks from the erstwhile Great Satan are welcome to drop by.
And they are.
Ms. Moore's group includes four physicians, a former State Department official, a woman who owns a printing company, and a university administrator, among others. Their average age is close to retirement. They are well-traveled in the Islamic world and well-read.
"When you tell Americans you're going to Iran, they think you're nuts," she says, "but Iran has everything.
"Rome has nothing on Isfahan," the former Persian capital that flourished in the 16th century. The holiest Iranian city of Mashhad, she says, "is more beautiful than Mecca." Moore's group encountered no anti-Americanism at all, she says.
The United States warns against visiting hostile nations and has no embassy or consulate here.
Politics is not the only obstacle. For women, this is a vacation with a very strict dress code. Moore issued black scarves, overcoats, and chadors (one-piece head-to-toe scarves that are worn clutched at the chin) to women upon arrival in Tehran. They can never leave their hotel rooms without a scarf tied under the chin and a formless covering over their clothes.
This is an alcohol-free country, even for non-Muslims. But Moore says she has not had heard any complaints.
She sold out two separate trips of 15 people within 24 hours of mailing out her brochures, she says. Four more have sold out since.
In spite of shortages of hotels, restaurants, and knowledgeable guides, Markhood Karimi, marketing manager of the Iran Tourist Agency, claims that tourists find they are treated well here.
"If they come and respect Islamic principles, that's OK," says an official. "If they don't respect Islamic principles, they don't come. And that's OK too."