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In the aftermath of Qassem Suleimani’s assassination, President Trump threatened to strike Iran’s cultural sites. The country is home to 24 UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Jameh Mosque in Isfahan.
As tensions escalate after the assassination of Iran’s top general, we turned to travel experts for advice on visiting the Middle East right now. In short, don’t cancel anything just yet.
Traveling to Iran has never been simple for Americans. For one, credit and debit cards issued in the United States simply do not work there. There are a number of local customs to observe (alcohol is illegal and women must wear head scarves). Americans (as well as Brits and Canadians) also must be accompanied by a guide. But those who have visited since the 2015 nuclear agreement saw an easing of travel restrictions to Iran know it’s a trip worth taking.
In addition to two dozen UNESCO World Heritage sites—including 22 cultural ones like the ancient royal city of Persepolis—Iran is home to an exciting contemporary art scene. It is also one of the fastest growing tourist destinations in the world, with nearly 50 percent more visitors arriving in 2018 compared to 2017.
Yet the ability—and safety—of travel in Iran was jeopardized when the United States killed Iran’s top general Qassem Suleimani on January 3, 2020, in an airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport. Since the assassination, tensions throughout the Middle East have escalated. On January 8, Iran retaliated by firing ballistic missiles at Iraqi military bases that house American troops. A few hours later, a Ukrainian jetliner crashed near Tehran, killing all 176 people on board. Evidence indicates it is “highly likely” that an Iranian anti-aircraft missile is responsible for the crash.
Shortly after these events, the FAA restricted American pilots and carriers from flying in Iraqi, Iranian, and some Persian Gulf airspace. Several other international airlines, including Air France, Qantas, and Lufthansa, suspended flights over Iraqi and Iranian airspace indefinitely.
However, while many call into question the safety of traveling to Iran—or even in the entire region at the moment—there’s no reason to cancel any plans just yet. As the situation continues to evolve, AFAR talked to tour operators with decades of experience in the region as well as our own Travel Advisory Council for advice on visiting the Middle East right now.
Jess Silber is the director of Global Sales at GeoEx, a tour operator that has been organizing trips to Iran since the mid 90s.
“For now we haven’t formally canceled any trips. We’re still consulting with our private security firm and checking with our colleagues on the ground,” Silber told AFAR.
“There have been some transfers though for guests who were booked to go to Iran this spring and have decided to go on a different trip with us, so we’re working on re-accommodating guests who want to transfer. We want to be advocates for our guests no matter what they choose and are waiving cancellation penalties. If they do want to stay on board . . . they can wait it out with us and check in as we continue to get reports back,” Silber said. “If there’s a huge escalation in tensions, then we would cancel the trip and do our best to accommodate the guests wherever else they wanted to go. Most of the trips (to Iran) take place in spring, so they’re still a couple months out.”
One thing to note is that while medical evacuation insurance is included in GeoEx trips, trip cancellation insurance isn’t.
“For regions that might have unstable security, insurance won’t help you if your own comfort level changes. You have to look into policies like Cancel For Any Reason—or CFAR as it’s known. You might not get all of the trip cost back—often they cap it at 75 percent—but then it gives you total flexibility. If you think that might be a possibility, if you feel extra concern going to some of these areas, I definitely suggest looking into various policies and comparing them,” Silber said.
As the North American director of Sales at Intrepid Travel, Megan Bailey assured AFAR that safety of its customers is always the number one priority.
“At this time, we have not canceled any itineraries and our local operations team in Iran, as well as our regional operations offices in Cairo and Istanbul, are closely monitoring the situation,” Bailey told AFAR.
“We appreciate that under the current circumstances some travelers may be reconsidering their trips to Iran and we are offering those customers the opportunity to move to another trip or cancel bookings and hold funds towards another trip,” Bailey said.
However, Intrepid’s Uncharted Expedition Mystery Trip, which is scheduled to depart from Tehran on April 18, remains unchanged.
“If it becomes unsafe to travel to a place, we may reroute the itinerary, but no changes have been made at this time,” Bailey said.
A member of AFAR’s Travel Advisory Council as well as the co-owner and copresident of Valerie Wilson Travel, Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg told AFAR that her clients haven’t canceled their trips to the Middle East—nor should anyone else.
“There are still many trips planned to these countries and it is important to note that these areas are excited to welcome travelers who want to have memorable experiences,” Wilson-Buttigieg told AFAR.
“Any clients who have already booked trips to the Middle East are, of course, being kept aware of any risks that may impact their trip. However, as with any change in any political climate, it really depends on a traveler’s comfort level. I always recommend that travelers book with a professional travel advisor to have an advocate, take out insurance, make sure to have plans A, B, and C, and truly understand their own tolerance for risk,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed reporting to this article.
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