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PHOTO: An Iranian selfie: The youth of Iran are driving change. (Photo courtesy of Alexander + Roberts)
On Thursday, Alexander + Roberts will open sales for tours to Iran. It will be the first time the company has offered a tour to Iran, but the initiative has been in the making for a long time.
Alexander + Roberts, founded in 1947 as General Tours by Alexander Harris, built its business through pioneering trips to places Americans had hardly ever or never traveled to previously. It started with trips to the Soviet Union in 1954 when the Cold War was blazing.
Harris was a former soldier and prisoner of war during World War II and was profoundly inspired to open barriers among people everywhere to promote peace.
In the early '50s Harris wrote to President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposing the idea of enabling travel to the Soviet Union for Americans. The former general, who was passionately dedicated to maintaining peace as a result of his World War II experience, wrote back and gave Harris his blessing. In 1956 Eisenhower pursued the idea further and inaugurated the first People to People programs, encouraging travel to the U.S.S.R.
General Tours/Alexander + Roberts was also one of the first tour operators to enter China after President Nixon opened relations with the country in the early 1970s. It was one of the first to offer tours for Americans to Syria, Morocco, Jordan, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Alexander Harris called his memoir "Breaking Borders" and made it his life's mission to break down borders to travel anywhere he wanted Americans to be able to travel.
Iran has not been anywhere near the mainstream of travel for Americans for decades, but there is interest in traveling there.
READ MORE: Iran Preparing For Major Tourist Influx
For American travelers up to now, the choices have been few. For travel agents there are few opportunities to get into the market because most of the few tour operators that have offered trips to Iran are direct marketing companies that do not work with travel agents.
As Alexander + Roberts, the former General Tours, puts its tour of Iran into the mainstream travel market, it is the culmination of a long process of preparation. For Bob Drumm, the company's owner and president, it goes back about as far as he can remember.
"It's always been in the back of my mind," Drumm told TravelPulse. "When I was about 12, I overnighted in Tehran with my folks en route to somewhere in Europe from Tokyo. For some reason, it stayed with me. When the nuclear impasse looked like it might be breaking, about two years ago, I began to make active plans to introduce the program into our portfolio when that crisis passed."
Drumm's first girlfriend in college was Iranian. He always had a fascination with the country, but political relations between the governments of Iran and the U.S. made any kind of travel between the countries a sticky business, even for a company as experienced at breaking borders as Alexander + Roberts. Now relations between the countries have warmed, a nuclear agreement has been reached, the political power in Iran is passing into more moderate hands and new possibilities for travel are emerging.
As Alexander + Roberts approaches its 70th anniversary in 2017, Drumm figured it was a good time to break the borders to Iran and initiate tours to a previously off-limits country for the first time in years.
Drumm became acquainted with an Iranian travel professional at the ITB travel trade show in Berlin in the early 1990s.
"My Iranian friend, a very accomplished, professional and licensed guide who actually speaks English better than me, is a real charmer," said Drumm. "He's been after me to start tours to Iran for 20 years. I wanted to wait until the nuclear deal had been solidified."
Drumm visited Iran after the February 2016 parliamentary elections had swept more moderate politicians into power. The election, Drumm says, reflects a progressive movement in the country driven primarily by its youth.
"Fifty percent of the country is under 30," said Drumm. "They organized for the election, using social media to communicate which candidates were the moderates. The youth of the country are changing it."
As the country opens to the world, it presents many fascinations of a society that has been closed but is also home to tremendous cultural and historical resources, including 19 UNESCO World Heritage sites, 11 of which are included on the Alexander + Roberts tour.
"Despite some of the obvious issues," said Drumm, "Iran is a fascinating place. It is so youthful now. Everyone has a cell phone. The women are beautiful and so stylish with designer sunglasses. They 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. Now as Iran is opening to the world, the youth are eager to have that happen."
The Alexander + Roberts tour is designed to present both the ancient Persian history and the modern life of people on the street today.
READ MORE: Will Tehran Become the Next Dubai?
"There is so much to see, not only antiquity but also the local life," said Drumm. Not to mention the food, which Drumm did with enthusiasm.
And of course, as in almost any destination, the best part of it is ultimately the local people themselves.
"The most interesting thing is the people," said Drumm. "When they find out you're American, you get hugged. It's amazing. It was one of friendliest welcomes I ever had anywhere. The country is full of ambiguities, of course. It is in a transitional mode. And when you talk to the young people they are so inspired and determined. 'No way we're going back,' they say."
Alexander + Roberts' tour is based around stays in Tabriz, Tehran, Isfahan, Yazd and Shiraz. They will include VIP arrival services in Iran to help ease any anxieties Americans may feel from watching too much bad news on TV.
The tour is timed to provide a leisurely passage through the itinerary, with two- and three-night stays in each hotel.
The first departure will be March 4, 2017. There are seven departures scheduled into 2018. Groups are a maximum of 16 people. Trips will operate in spring and fall, taking off July and August for the hottest months.
Iran holds some of the attraction of societies, such as Cuba and Myanmar, that have been isolated for a long time.
"It's the closed nature of a society that is very rich, like Cuba," said 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."
David Cogswell is executive editor covering tours and packages, Africa and the Middle East.
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