RIYADH, 3 September — Around 50,000 Saudis visited Iran this summer, said to be a record since the signing of the bilateral agreement permitting free travel between the two countries.
Speaking from Dammam, Mirza Ali, a Saudi journalist who returned from Iran after a three-week stay, told Arab News that even though Saudi businessmen have been visiting Iran regularly, it was the first time Saudi families went there as tourists following the agreement signed between Minister of Interior Prince Naif and his Iranian counterpart Mousavi Lari. Among other things, it entitles Saudis to visit Iran without a visa.
He said 29 flights departed from Bahrain to Mashad carrying 4,500 Saudi tourists from the Eastern Province. Others flew in from Dubai and Kuwait to various Iranian destinations like Shiraz, Mashad, Asfahan and the capital city of Tehran.
According to Ali Al-Hai, manager of Al-Barak for Travel and Tourism, Bahrain serves as the most economical route to Iran among the Gulf embarkation points on account of its geographical proximity.
Ali said his three-week package tour in the SR3,200-3,900 range included a round-trip fare, inland transportation, accommodation in four- and five-star hotels, besides food.
Among the tourist destinations, Isfahan enjoys immense popularity due to its mosques, historicity and a picture-postcard look. He said it is a big draw even with tourists from Germany, Belgium and other European countries.
Hot springs are a favorite haunt for their therapeutic value, while Khorasan, the birthplace of Persian poet Firdausi, exercises its magnetic pull on those with a literary bent of mind. Some of the libraries have over 50 percent of their stocks in Arabic, signifying the great Iranian interest in Arabic.
Both Mirza and Ali observed that Iran had plenty to offer tourists — from saffron, dried fruits, textiles and leather garments to construction material, petrochemicals and plastic ware. “Many Iranian businessmen are looking for Saudi agents to market their products,” they said.
Hamid Amiri Chimeh, first secretary at the Iranian Embassy, told Arab News that there was a $20 million increase in bilateral trade that reached $164 million last year. However, the indirect trade via Dubai, Kuwait and Qatar was much higher at $300 million.
He said the third Saudi-Iranian Joint Economic Commission, held in Riyadh last year, had decided to set up a commercial bank between the two countries with a capital investment of $200 million.
The headquarters of the proposed bank is expected to be in Manama, the Bahraini capital. It would provide loan and other facilities to businessmen of both countries in boosting bilateral trade.
By another decision of the JEC, a branch office of IRNA, the Iranian news agency, has been set up in Riyadh, Cimeh said, adding that the next session of the JEC would be held in Tehran.