Fanfare and flash bulbs greeted the Golden Eagle Danube Express this week on its arrival at Tehran station. The passengers were showered with gifts and good wishes, and eagerly pressed for quotes or poses, as they disembarked at Iran’s capital into a welcoming scrum of tourism officials, residents and international news and television crews.
Ayatollah Khomeini, hard-line architect of Iran’s Islamic revolution, might not have approved. But the much-heralded arrival of this luxury period-style service, the first private European train permitted to enter the country, is being seen as headline evidence of the thaw in relations between the West and the Islamic Republic since the election last year of comparative moderate President Hassan Rouhani.
It especially marks a new beginning for tourism in a country that’s little visited despite being richer even than neighbouring Turkey in world heritage sites such as ancient Persepolis and Isfahan’s exquisite Naqsh-e Jahan Square.
“We’re on target to double the number of incoming visitors from 2.3 million in 2013 to 4.6 million this year,” says Ebrahim Pourfaraj of the Iran Tourism Operators’ Association.
The inaugural “Jewels of Persia” departure, carrying 62 mostly Australian, American and European passengers, left Budapest two weeks earlier for the 4,100-mile journey. The train first passed through Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, its regular touring grounds, before crossing Turkey for the first time to make its historic entrance east of Lake Van into the Islamic Republic.