USA sanctions drive Iran’s plan for health tourists

 

Most medical tourism destinations have no sense of urgency in developing new strategies to increase business, but US sanctions on Iran mean that the Iranian government is seeking to urgently attract more tourists to Iran and crucially, more hard foreign currency.

Under the 2025 Tourism Vision Plan, Iran is expecting to increase the number of tourism arrivals from 4.8 million in 2014 to 20 million in 2025.  Visiting Iran has become considerably cheaper for foreign travellers. Iran's currency, the rial, has lost close to 60% of its value since the US first announced in 2019 that it was unilaterally withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal that it and Europe had with Iran, and was re-imposing sanctions.

The more the US seeks to pressure Iran to do what the US wants, the more Iran resists. China is under similar pressure from the US on trade, technology and currency.  China and Iran already enjoy a healthy trading relationship, with Iran exporting energy to China and Chinese state enterprises making investments in Iran's oil and gas sector. Iran-Chinese ties are being strengthened.

For decades Iran has been blocked from global debit and credit card systems controlled by the USA and Europe. But China now has its own rival payment systems based on mobile devices, as China overtakes the USA in developing technology. UnionPay, the most commonly held Chinese credit card is not available in the West. Using Chinese expertise, Iran is now developing a national crypto currency system.

Iran wants a share of the significant outbound Chinese market of 150 million and rising. Iran's ambitious plan is to increase the number of Chinese visitors from just over 50,000 in 2018 to two million by the end of 2020.  

To encourage Chinese tourists, health tourists and medical tourists, the need for a visa to Iran has now been abolished. Iran still has to change perceptions, as many Chinese tourists mistake Iran for Iraq, or think the country is at war. Targeting China also means that Iran can use Chinese competitors to Google, Chinese travel agencies and media that does not have a European/US slant on what is happening in the world.

Iran suffers from weak infrastructure, low investment and lacklustre advertising but the government is trying to redress decades of neglect. There are plans to construct dozens of five-star hotels around the country, funded in part by cheap government-backed loans and tax incentives for private-sector developers. Iran needs foreign investors and with huge Chinese groups moving into the travel and hotel sector, Chinese investors could solve the problem with Chinese state-aid used to modernise the infrastructure.

The government is also pouring more resources into medical tourism by developing health tourism hubs, especially in Shiraz, the capital of the southern Fars Province.

For further analysis of the developing medical travel sector in Iran, subscribe to the IMTJ Country Profile.

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