Globetrotting frenzy grips Iranian youth
TEHRAN - A travel frenzy is gripping young Iranians, who are inspiring each other through social media to overcome traditional constraints and expand their horizons.
The exploits of young Iranian travellers, hitchhiking and backpacking their way around the globe, have become immensely popular on Instagram and Telegram, the most widely used apps in Iran, with some gathering more than 200,000 followers.
Iran has long had a globetrotting elite thanks to the large diaspora that fled to the United States and Europe after the 1979 revolution, but now it is the turn of the emerging middle class to stretch their wings, overcoming cultural barriers and parental worries in the process.
Sara Louee, 31, grew up thinking that holidays were a family trip to the northern coasts of Iran.
But two years ago, she met a group of foreigners through the website couchsurfing.com and joined them as they hitchhiked to the ancient city of Yazd.
She was unprepared: "I had absolutely no equipment. I was wearing flimsy girly shoes and had borrowed a backpack from a friend," she said.
But her mind was opened to a world of possibility and she was soon saving for a 40-day trip around Europe, even if it meant battling with her conservative-minded parents.
"My family didn't accept it easily or overnight. I went through a lot of pain. But I gradually proved I could do it with shorter trips and gained their trust," said Louee, who now blogs regularly about her travels.
"These days, if I stay home at the weekend, my dad comes over and asks if something is wrong," she added, laughing.
- 'Strangers in your room?!' -
Other young Iranians, particularly women, say they had been taught that travelling alone was dangerous.
"When I told people I stayed in a hostel in Europe, Iranians would be shocked and say 'You mean there were strangers in your room?! Didn't they do anything to you?'" said Mahzad Elyassi, another travel blogger.
She only heard about hitchhiking for the first time in 2015 but has since travelled to all 32 of Iran's provinces and 20 countries.
"We've proven that Iran is really safe for such trips. It's become a trend.
"One woman said she used my Instagram page to convince her husband, saying: 'If she can do it alone, so can we.'"
Last year, Iran recorded 9.2 million departures, a 38.5-percent increase on the previous year and almost double the numbers a decade ago.
The trend has been helped by President Hassan Rouhani, who came to power in 2013 promising to improve Iran's relations with the world.
Iranians are not welcome everywhere: the United States this year banned them from entry unless they have close family, and European countries have strict and laborious procedures for tourists designed to weed out poor people.
But much of the rest of the world is welcoming Iran's tourist boom, with 38 countries now waiving visas for Iranians.
They include Georgia, Russia, Turkey and Malaysia, and talks are reportedly under way with India.
- Tech support -
That has helped encourage travel among those outside of the rich elite by putting the focus on cheaper countries.
"Maybe Iranians don't have enough dollars or euros to travel to Europe but they can explore places like southeast Asia," said Elyassi.
Technology has also been crucial.
"When I started, Google Maps didn't exist. People couldn't just easily travel and share their experiences," said Reza Pakravan, 43, one of Iran's best-known travellers after he broke the world record for crossing the Sahara on a bike.
Alireza Zafari, 38, has spent two years on the "Herculean task" of documenting the whole of Iran for travellers, a project he expects will take another eight years to complete.
He hopes to encourage more Iranians and foreigners to visit Iran's beauty spots rather than the default option of popping across the border to Turkey, still the top choice for Iranians with 2.1 million visits last year thanks to cheap package tours and the availability of booze.
"The reason behind the travel wave is that people have become aware of the world, and technology gives them easy access to the information they need," Zafari said.