Al-monitor — Off-road driving as well as tours of the desert, mountains and forests have become popular pastimes for youths in Iran. The phenomenon particularly applies to those from more affluent backgrounds, who often embark on journeys to the desert in their upscale vehicles. To become better acquainted with desert tourism and off-road driving in Iran, Al-Monitor spoke to Mohammad Ali Majdabadi, a veteran in the trade.
AUTHOR Saeid Jafari
Driving his Mitsubishi, Prado or another one of his collection of vehicles, Majdabadi has been leading tours of Iran’s deserts for about a decade. Commenting on how ecotourism began to take form in Iran, he told Al-Monitor, “This topic [ecotourism] goes back 40 years when rich people began exploring the more difficult routes with their fancy American vehicles, like Cherokees, Range Rovers and Blazers, for hunting, desert trekking and fishing. The new trend, however, is about 10 years old with the past five years seeing the establishment of regular tours. Initially, these tour groups were for those who wanted an adventurous trip in nature, but have since become a source of business.”
An online search for “desert tourism” in Persian will turn up dozens of tour companies and websites that offer different options at various prices. However, these tour groups do not seem to be very specialized.
“The majority of tours found on the internet go only to the nearest and most accessible spots in the desert where one can easily visit without a tour group, or even with a regular car,” Majdabadi said. “However, there are about 10 tried tour companies that are famous when it comes to desert tours and can even embark on the challenging and specialized routes.”
But how much do these tours cost? A quick search on the web will net a variety of options. A two-day tour to the Maranjab Desert, one of the most popular destinations in central Iran, will cost about $57 and doesn’t require a purpose-built vehicle. The more specialized tours, however, have different price tags. “The cost depends on the type of trip and the services being offered. But on average, one should consider $35-$50 for a desert tour,” Majdabadi said.
And exactly what attractions do these tours offer the public? Mesr Desert, located in Dasht-e Kavir, or the central desert of Iran, is known as one of the most noteworthy tourist sites in the country. Situated on the road between the cities of Damghan, Nain and Esfahan, the desert is easily accessible — which is perhaps why many go there. Some of the activities that tour groups offer here include trekking in the desert, walking on sand dunes, watching the magnificent sunset over the salty marshes of the desert and exploring the palm groves.
Amir, an adventurer who has been visiting Iran’s deserts with different tour groups for about six years, told Al-Monitor, “Usually, these tours don’t do anything special. Sand sliding, driving over the sand dunes with one’s car, and desert safari are the main attractions of these trips. The rest of the time we watch the desert at night and enjoy the raw, unique nature that has remained untouched and has been less damaged by humans.”
Desert tourism is not the only type of adventures offered by these tour groups. During the summer, when the desert becomes intolerable, nature enthusiasts opt for tours of the mountainous regions in Iran’s north and west. Al-Monitor asked Majdabadi about the usual types of people who join these tour groups. He responded, “Of course, it’s natural that they are more from the richer class, because if you want to enjoy being in nature you need to have a car that can drive uphill during difficult situations. Of course, there are also people who come with ordinary and cheaper jeeps. Usually, though, those who come on these trips have cars like the Toyota Land Cruiser, FG Cruise, Prado and Hilux — or Mitsubishi SUVs.”
On average, given the steep import tariffs, these vehicles cost about $50,000-$70,000 in Iran. This is while the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labor and Welfare puts the average monthly salary of a common laborer at $230. Yet, the luxury pastime of ecotourism is not restricted to youths and older people, with some families joining tour groups, too.
To become more familiar with the social backgrounds of these adventurers, Al-Monitor went to one of their gatherings in a cafe in downtown Tehran and encountered a group of about 20 people who said it was their usual meeting point the first Monday of every month. Asked about the damages their cars face each time they go on one of these journeys, Ali — who seemed to be among the older members of the group — said, “It’s natural that when we go on these difficult routes, our cars will need more regular inspections, some of which are very costly and may even lead to the need to change one’s car earlier than planned. But the joy of experiencing raw nature is worth it.”
As Majdabadi noted, people from different backgrounds can be seen in these groups, and although there is a wide wealth gap between some of them, nature — and their shared love for it — is a common factor leading to friendships that may not have emerged otherwise.