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Visit Iran? US Tour Company Says Yes, Despite Recent Arrests

One luxury tour company in the U.S. is promoting a new trip to the country for those willing to take the risk, describing it as the first opportunity to see an Iran opening up to the West after last year's nuclear deal

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    In this Friday, April 8, 2011, file photo, Canadian tourist David Froud, left, and his Iranian wife Mahnaz sightsee the Jomeh mosque, which is now a historical monument, in the city of Isfahan, some 234 miles south of the capital Tehran, Iran.

    It is home to beautiful mountains, breathtaking historical buildings and priceless artwork — but it's also the subject of strongly worded U.S. State Department warnings.

    For Americans, Iran may not be the first place that comes to mind when planning a vacation, even decades after the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover following the country's Islamic Revolution. "Death to America!" can still be heard at hard-line mosques and protests, and Iranians with Western ties can face arbitrary arrest.

    However, one luxury tour company in the U.S. is promoting a new trip to the country for those willing to take the risk, describing it as the first opportunity to see an Iran opening up to the West after last year's nuclear deal.

    "We feel that Iran is one of the most exciting places that someone can travel to at this point in time, given the current climate in the country and what sort of changes have been taking place recently," said Stefanie Schmudde, product manager of Americas and Middle East for the Downers Grove, Illinois-based tour company Abercrombie & Kent.

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    On paper, there's a lot to interest travelers. The United Nations culture agency lists 21 World Heritage sites in Iran. They include the ruins of Persepolis and Pasargadae, the mosques and palace at Meidan Emam of Isfahan, and other sites included on the Illinois company's 12-day tour from $5,600 .

    Iran has long drawn Shiite pilgrims to its holy sites, but local skiers and snowboarders also boast of its slopes, and the capital, Tehran, enjoys a growing modern art scene. Iran says around 5 million tourists visit each year — most coming from Iraq and other neighboring countries.

    Europeans have been coming to Iran, but Americans represent far less than 1 percent of all tourists. Many are doubtless staying away because they associate Iran with Middle East conflicts and anti-American rhetoric. But the Iranian government, which is deeply suspicious of U.S. intentions, has also made it difficult for Americans to secure tourism visas.

    Schmudde, who recently returned from a trip to Iran, compares the current opening to what is taking place in Cuba, which unlike Iran has restored full diplomatic relations with the U.S.

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    "There's so few places that don't have a strong American influence, and Iran is one of those places," she said. "You do get the sense you're stepping into another world, and that makes it completely fascinating to a traveler."

    The State Department has a very different perspective.

    "Iranian authorities continue to unjustly detain and imprison U.S. citizens, particularly Iranian-Americans, including students, journalists, business travelers and academics, on charges including espionage and posing a threat to national security," its August travel warning reads . "U.S. citizens traveling to Iran should very carefully weigh the risks of travel and consider postponing."

    While American diplomatic posts overseas tend to see security as a glass half-empty, or even shattered on the floor, their concern in this case is reasonable. Iran and the U.S. haven't had formal diplomatic relations since 1979, and a new round of arrests by hard-line factions within Iran's security services is targeting those with Western ties in the wake of the nuclear accord.

    Schmudde acknowledged those concerns and said any journalists, people associated with the U.S. government and military personnel asking about the trip would be warned in advance. Alcohol is illegal and women are required by law to cover their hair.

    Gays and lesbians can face the death penalty in Iran. However, that didn't stop Utah state Sen. Jim Dabakis and his husband from traveling to Iran this summer at the invitation of the country's tourism industry. His visit set off a firestorm in Iran among hard-liners, who constantly warn of "Western infiltration."

    In the time since, one hopeful U.S. tourist and a tour company in Iran have told The Associated Press that it has become even more difficult for Americans to get a visa. However, the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, which handles issuing visas for Iran, says nothing has changed.

    Iranian officials did not respond to a request for comment.

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    Abercrombie & Kent has planned its first Iran trip in early May, leaving just ahead of the country's presidential election. They say that interchange between American tourists and the Iranian people will help bridge the gap between the two nations.

    "I would not hesitate to send anybody," Schmudde said. "It's a very exciting destination that's really and truly on the cusp of change."