With news that British Airways will resume direct flights to Iran after a four-year hiatus, some of the UK’s more intrepid travellers will be contemplating a visit to one of the world’s most beguiling and mysterious destinations.
Iran is renowned for its natural beauty, and myriad relics of antiquity, such as the ninth-century Amir Chakmaq square and Imam Reza shrine. Yet, for all its architectural treasures, families might think twice about visiting Iran. If you need a place packed with fairs, malls and fast-food joints to entertain the kids for a couple of weeks, Iran probably wouldn’t be top of the list.
The country’s capital and main visitor hub, Tehran, is currently served by only a smattering of small amusement parks, and the most significant, Eram Park, is tiny in comparison with most international equivalents, and is more akin to a 1950s fairground than a modern attraction with its ghost-train and ferris wheel.
Eram has just received an upgrade, which was long overdue; Stefan Zwanzger, who travels the world reviewing dippers, flumes and popcorn machines as The Theme Park Guy, told talkRADIO that when he visited in 2011 it boasted “probably the world’s worst roller coaster”, which was “genuinely uncomfortable”. He described the other rides as “run-down, tattered, the paint was peeling. Like a carnival-style fun fair, but there permanently.”
'Mickey Mouse' welcomes visitors to Eram Park (The Theme Park Guy)
Yet the family-unfriendly image of Iran may soon be about to change. A huge $350 million theme park is being built in Tehran, designed to corner a market which has long been neglected. Called Story City, it will be the first-ever theme park in Iran and reportedly feature a total of 45 rides. The developer, Ezam Construction Investment, has said it hopes to attract nine million visitors a year - almost double Iran’s total number of tourists for 2014.
One of the project’s consultants, Jeroen Nijpels, told talkRADIO that planning begin three or four years ago, when Iran was still a pariah state, but the development process was accelerated when sanctions against the country were lifted. Based in Luxembourg, Mr. Nijpels embodies the international complexion of the project, whose designers masterminded Universal Studios and whose rides will be supplied from countries such as Germany, Italy and France.
The plans for Story City are imbued with a distinctly Iranian seasoning. In fact Mr. Nijpels says the planners says the planners are aiming primarily at the domestic market – although if international tourists want to visit, “that’s fine.”
The layout is anchored “a world expo, a cultural pavilion for Iran,” complete with a Silk Road, a Moroccan bazaar and an ancient tomb. There will also be the obligatory roller-coasters, flumes and ‘dark rides’ – those attractions which spook their visitors with a long, dark tunnel (assuming they aren't already spooked by the tomb).
Nijpels says the majority of rides are aimed at families, but there will also be “a couple of rides for teenagers.” Education will be the central theme of the project; the planners are not only focusing on rollercoasters. The overall idea is to look at attractions that will help tell the story Ezam wants to tell, in a playful way.”
At present it is unclear when the project will commence. Indeed there is speculation that the project has slowed down due to the changing political climate. When it does open though, it will shatter a few myths and could potentially underpin Iran’s mission to become a global tourist hub.
Iran may still not have a McDonalds, but it will soon have its very own Disney World.