I’d like to be able to visit Iran in 2021—and not just because it looks like the pandemic might end this year. The defeat of Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election will almost certainly make it easier for Americans like me to enter Iran, although that isn’t saying much, given that it was almost impossible before.
Iran, for its part, is in a tricky place. One of the countries hit earlier and hardest by the pandemic, Iran took a broad blow to its already struggling economy, including the closure of the tourism sector, one of the country’s important (and, previously, most resilient).
On the other hand, perpetual sanctions against the regime will make it difficult to vaccinate Iran’s population and, thereby, get its local epidemic under control, limiting the country’s appeal as a destination, even when borders do re-open. Let’s take a deeper dive, shall we?
Is Iran’s Border Open or Closed?
An open border is a pre-requisite if you want to visit Iran in 2021. And unfortunately, at least in the last week of 2020, the border isn’t open to tourists. As of this writing, only travelers with Iranian citizenship or official authorization to be in the country (a work permit or student visa, for example) are able to enter. Additionally, flights to and from the UK have been canceled indefinitely, due to a mutated (but likely innocuous) variant of the virus detected there in mid-December 2020.
Which is not to say that British travelers ever had it easy. As has long been the case for Americans (and, since 2014, Canadians), British tourists are only allowed to enter Iran in conjunction with an organized tour, and are technically not allowed to leave their tour guide’s side the entire time they’re in the country. This is unfortunately unlikely to change in 2021, even once Iran’s border has re-opened to tourists.
Where to Go
Iran’s capital is most likely where your trip will begin, but don’t (just) visit Tehran by default. Spend your day in Golestan Palace and watch the city light up at night, whether from atop the Milad Tower or at Tochal Complex, which in my opinion offers the best view of the city.
When you visit Iran in 2021, Isfahan is a must. A gorgeous historical city centered around the mosque- and market-filled Imam Square, Isfahan is precisely the place you think about when you think of Iran—you might say that Iran begins and ends there. Certainly, it was my favorite Iranian city.
Shiraz, on the other hand, doesn’t quite live up to its high profile, in my opinion. While I enjoyed the city’s bazaar, and arriving early to take selfies inside the insta-famous Pink Mosque, I find it neither as beautiful as Isfahan, nor as large and cosmopolitan as Tehran.
Yazd and the Mesr Desert
Another spot to prioritize, whether you visit Iran in 2021 or any other year, is the desert city of Yazd. The city center and its Zoroastrian attractions notwithstanding, Yazd is a gateway to the Mesr Desert, named for the Persian word for “Egypt,” since its sands so resemble those of the Sahara.
The bad news? Tabriz, a city in Iran’s far northwestern, doesn’t really feel all that Iranian. The good news? It has a delightfully Turkish aesthetic and vibe, which makes it unique within Iran, and extremely pleasing to you if you love to travel in Turkey as much as I do.
When Will Iran Re-Open to Tourism?
I know from contacts on the ground that professionals within Iran’s tourism industry are eager to start their businesses up once again. However, the Iranian government will not re-open the border to tourists until at least one (and probably both) of two conditions have been met. First, Iran’s domestic Covid-19 epidemic needs to be brought under control, liking using Chinese and Russian vaccinations. I hope this will occur sometime during the first half of 2021.
Once this takes place, I imagine you will be able to visit Iran in 2021, assuming you are able to prove you are negative for Covid-19 (and, likely, not definitely, that you have been vaccinated against it). Once the global pandemic begins to abate throughout the middle and end of 2021, it is possible that the tourism situation in Iran (and indeed, around the world) will begin to normalize. I imagine that the world of 2022 will look surprisingly like the world of 2019!
FAQ About Travel to Iran
Can Americans travel to Iran?
American tourists will be able to enter Iran once the border has re-opened, albeit under similarly unappealing circumstances as were in place prior to Covid-19. Specifically, Americans will need to purchase an organized tour in order to be granted an Iranian visa, and (technically, anyway) stay with their tour guides the entire time they’re in the country.
Can I fly to Iran?
Limited flights to Iran from around the world have been operating since mid-2020. If you have legal authorization to be in Iran (a work permit, for example, or a student visa), it is technically possible to fly to Iran, although doing so may be more time-consuming and expensive than it would’ve been before the pandemic.
Is it safe to visit Iran as a tourist?
Iran is safe both for tourists and local people. With the exception of road accidents, which can be especially grisly in Iran, Iran is actually one of the safest countries in the world, owing to low levels of violent crime and high levels of community cohesion.
The Bottom Line
If you want to visit Iran in 2021, the future looks mixed. On one hand, Iran’s economy desperately needs a boost, and tourism will likely be even more important after the pandemic than it was before. On the other hand, Iran’s status as a global pariah means that vaccines will be difficult to come by; the shoddiness of the Chinese vaccines that are likely to make up its stockpile may make it difficult to get Covid-19 under control such that tourists want to visit.