Last updated: 03:03 PM ET, Tue September 13 2016

Breaking Down Borders

Alexander + Roberts opens yet another new frontier - this time Iran

Vacation Agent | Tour Operator | David Cogswell

Breaking Down Borders

One of Iran's strongest selling points is its people. Fifty percent of the population is under 30.

As the 70th anniversary of its founding approaches in 2017, Alexander + Roberts, a company that built its business by breaking down borders, is turning its attention to a new one. The tour operator, which began offering tours to the Soviet Union in 1954, has unveiled departures for its first Iran tours in early 2017.

Although Iran has not been a travel destination for Americans since the 1970s, there is growing interest in the country. But until now there have been few options in terms of tour operators for Americans who want to go there.

For travel agents there are even fewer opportunities to get into the market, because the handful of tour operators that have offered trips to Iran do not work with them.

Alexander + Roberts President Bob Drumm, to whom the company founder, the late Alexander Harris, passed the baton when he retired, says he felt that the tour operator’s 70th anniversary year was an opportune time to break down yet another travel border – this time Iran’s.

Drumm had been considering the idea since the 1990s after befriending an Iranian travel professional at the ITB tradeshow in Berlin. “My Iranian friend, a very accomplished, professional and licensed guide who actually speaks English better than me, is a real charmer,” he says. “He’s been after me to start tours to Iran for 20 years. I wanted to wait till the nuclear deal had been solidified.” 

Drumm visited Iran after the February parliamentary elections had put a more moderate generation of politicians into power. The election, he says, reflects a progressive movement in the country driven primarily by its youth. “Fifty percent of the country is under 30,” he notes. “They organized for the election, using social media to communicate which candidates were the moderates.”

As the country opens to the world, visitors will gain access to a tremendous collection of cultural and historical attractions, including 19 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 11 of which are included on the Alexander + Roberts tour.

READ MORE: Egyptian Revival: One on One with Bob Drumm, Alexander + Roberts 

“Despite some of the obvious issues, Iran is a fascinating place and so youthful now,” says Drumm. “[The young people] are all filled with hope for the future. It’s a great place for Americans to go because Americans have always been a symbol of hope.”

The Alexander + Roberts tour is designed to present both ancient Persian history and the modern life of people on the street today. “There is so much to see, not only antiquity but also the local life,” he says.

In Drumm’s opinion, the country’s people are one of Iran’s most salient selling points. “The most interesting thing about Iran is the people. When they find out you’re American you get hugged. It’s amazing,” he says. “It was one of the friendliest welcomes I ever had anywhere.”

The 13-night tour includes stays in Tabriz, Tehran, Isfahan, Yazd and Shiraz. Guests will be met with VIP arrival services at the airport in Iran to help ease any anxieties Americans may feel about traveling in the Middle East. The program is set at a leisurely pace, with two- and three-night stays in each hotel.

The first departure is scheduled for March 4, 2017. In all, there are seven 13-night departures through 2018. Groups are designed for a maximum of 16 people.

Iran, by being cut off from the West, has some of the mystique of such destinations as Cuba and Myanmar, which after a long isolation are becoming accessible to a new generation of adventurous travelers. “It’s the closed nature of a society that is very rich, like Cuba,” says Drumm. “People are interested to see it before it changes, because it is changing. It’s eye opening in many ways. You feel the churning of change.” 

A Look Back at Alexander + Roberts’ Trail-Blazing History

Alexander + Roberts was founded in 1947 as General Tours by the late Alexander Harris, a soldier and prisoner of war during World War II who dedicated himself to breaking down barriers between countries in order to promote peace.

General Tours came to prominence when it started offering trips to the Soviet Union in 1954 as Cold War tensions were intensifying with the U.S.

Harris wrote a letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposing the idea of operating tours for Americans to visit the Soviet Union. He found a sympathetic ear with Eisenhower, who had led the Allied Invasion of Europe during World War II and was ardently dedicated to promoting a more peaceful world.

President Eisenhower wrote back to Harris and gave him his blessing. Soon after that, in 1956, Eisenhower inaugurated the first U.S. People to People programs, encouraging travel to the Soviet Union.

General Tours blazed trails in a number of other destinations that had previously been off the U.S. tourism map. It was also one of the first tour operators to enter China in the early 1970s after President Richard M. Nixon opened diplomatic relations with the communist country.

The company also pioneered tour programs to Syria, Morocco, Jordan, Vietnam and Cambodia.


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Vacation Agent Magazine

A version of this article appears in print in the September 2016 issue of Vacation Agent Magazine.