1159 GMT January 18, 2021
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic last winter was the beginning of an unprecedented crisis in Iran’s tourism sector, which, like a devastating flood, damaged the infrastructures of industry.
Despite the passage of several months, the shadow of the coronavirus continues to loom over the country’s tourism sector and has become a terrible nightmare for those involved in the industry. A nightmare for which no end can be predicted any time soon, and it is not clear how far it would bring the tourism sector to the brink of extinction.
In the meantime, as one of the most important pillars of the tourism industry, the hotel management sector has not been saved from the consequences of the coronavirus crisis and has suffered the most losses in this period.
Imposing coronavirus restrictions, prohibition of intercity travel, closure of recreational and tourism centers, as well as warnings about the risk of getting sick with COVID-19 if you travel far and near during the pandemic have led to a sharp decline in hotel revenues nationwide and has caused many of them to close down.
Iran Daily had an exclusive interview with Seyed Amir Nasser Tabatabai, treasurer and a member of Iranian Hoteliers Association, on the problems faced by Iranian hotels and accommodation centers since the advent of the coronavirus pandemic. The full text follows:
IRAN DAILY: First of all, as a member of the Iranian Hoteliers Association, would you please give us a brief explanation about the situation of Iran’s hotel industry since the coronavirus arrived in our country?
AMIR NASSER TABATABAI: Basically, tourism is known all over the world as a very delicate industry because anything can affect it. In fact, this industry is directly related to the comfort of people and, therefore, if a tourist encounters the slightest feeling of insecurity at a destination, he/she will avoid traveling to that place. The coronavirus pandemic has created a sense of insecurity among tourists. On the other hand, Norouz celebrations, held annually in Iran and some other countries to mark the arrival of spring and the Persian New Year, is the biggest holiday of the year in the country, providing opportunities for tourism centers to earn money. Most tourist destinations in the country are busy during the Norouz holidays. Meanwhile, due to the reduction of journeys after the holidays, money earned by hotels and accommodation centers during the period is used to pay staff salaries and other expenses in the following months. With the outbreak of COVID-19 in the past winter, the income was completely lost. In the initial stage of the pandemic, everyone thought that the disease would disappear by mid-summer due to the heat, and at the beginning of September, when the weather is good for travel, the situation of the tourism sector would return to normal. But this did not happen while the coronavirus is still the country’s guest.
What is the current situation of hotels and accommodation centers in terms of income and occupancy?
The prevalence of the coronavirus disease has caused the reduction of the number of tourists to its lowest level and, therefore, hotels have almost no income. Add to that the payment of staff salaries and maintenance costs. Despite having no income, hotels have to pay salaries to keep their professional staff. The hotel management industry has lost about 20 trillion rials ($1=250,000 rials) during March 20-Sept. 21, 2020. Currently, the occupancy rate of hotels in Iran is between five to 25 percent of capacity, while the figure for Tehran is about 15 percent. Kish Island, in Hormuzgan Province, accounted for the highest hotel occupancy rate during the period because the prevalence of COVID-19 has been much lower there.
The occupancy rate of Iranian hotels was between 50 to 55 percent in the corresponding period last year.
How much has the government helped you in this situation?
The government has planned various means of assistance to support tourism centers and hotels, but not all of them have been realized. For example, the government has announced that tourism centers are exempt from paying fees for employees’ social security insurance and for utilities including water, electricity and gas until mid-March 2021, but some governmental organizations have refused to accept it. Although the problem has been resolved through negotiations in a number of provinces, some others have not yet been able to make related organizations comply with government guidelines. Meanwhile, hotels used to receive a loan of 160 million rials per staff member, but now this is not the case; they can get a maximum loan of 9 billion rials. They also have to provide real estate collateral to receive the loan and it created many problems for them. In addition, it is difficult for hotel owners to repay the loan with 12 percent interest rate, because not only do they have no income, but they have to pay staff salaries, too.
How much effort have hotel managers made to comply with health protocols and gain the trust of their guests?
Hotels and tourist centers, interacting with various groups of people, have observed hygiene practices in the best possible manner even before the outbreak of COVID-19. Hotels use strong detergents in their kitchens and other facilities. With the advent of the pandemic, certain health measures have been put in place while special health protocols were adopted by Iranian Hoteliers Association.
For example, hotel rooms, which are disinfected after each occupancy, must be left empty for 48 hours before being occupied by the next guest. We have held a number of online training courses on health protocols for a number of hoteliers and presented special certificates to them.
Hotels also offer the highest discounts during the period to attract more travelers. Hotel rooms are generally given to tourists with discounts of more than 50 to 60 percent. Meanwhile, in a bid to cooperate with the National Headquarters to Combat the Coronavirus, the Iranian Hoteliers Association has announced preparedness to host patients with COVID-19 during their recovery period. Thirty-three hotels have been allocated for the purpose across the country but, so far, medical centers have met the needs of patients and we have had no demand in this regard.
What are the experiences of other countries in the field of protecting the tourism business during the fallout from COVID-19?
The coronavirus is a global problem and presently the policies adopted by the health sector are more decisive compared to others worldwide. Health policies in our country are constantly changing; for example, restrictions are imposed for a while, and then removed. With this situation, it is almost impossible for officials in the tourism sector to devise proper plans.
To resolve the problem faced by the tourism sector, Turkey has excluded the tourism sector from some health plans because tourism and its income are important for the country. This means that restaurants and tourist resorts are open, just like bakeries and supermarkets in our country, which are excluded from restrictions. In Turkey, tourists can travel around the city at night while ordinary people may be restricted. Certain measures have been undertaken to manage the situation. For example, when tourists’ passports are scanned, all related information, including their health status and where they come from are specified. Of course, the implementation of such instructions in our country requires the provision of related infrastructures including control and monitoring systems. On the other hand, many countries have provided grants to their tourism sector. The Iranian government can allocate $1 billion from the Foreign Exchange Reserve Fund to protect vulnerable industries during the coronavirus outbreak.
What is the importance of preserving and supporting the tourism sector when the country is facing sanctions and economic problems?
It is very important. Although the country’s capacity in terms of advanced computer hardware and tourism infrastructure is not sufficient, Iran is one of the best countries in the world in terms of tourist attractions; many foreigners are eager to visit Iran. This can help pave the way for the country to earn more foreign currency revenues.
On the one hand, when we export products, we face problems in transferring money from the country of destination due to sanctions and banking issues. In the tourism sector, however, the transfer of money to the country is easy. Tourists bring money to the country, and if it is not possible to deposit the money in Iranian banks, they usually give it in cash.
On the other hand, one of the most important challenges faced by the country in recent years has been the issue of social justice which we have been seeking to achieve for years. The target is easily achievable in the tourism industry because it is the only sector which brings money to the country and gives it to the private sector, directly, without depositing it in the State Treasury.