MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Let's head overseas now where Iranians are waiting for final results in last month's Parliamentary elections. Iranians are hoping the government will revive the economy now that crippling sanctions being lifted as part of last year's nuclear agreement with world powers. But as NPR's Peter Kenyon found on a visit to the city of Isfahan, many Iranians are getting tired of waiting for better times to arrive.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Isfahan is one Iran's cultural Meccas, a place where Iranians and foreigners can find Persia's rich history on display.
Imam Square, formerly known as Shah Square, is one of Isfahan's main attractions. The massive square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, dotted with ornately-tiled grand mosques and a palace. Horses decked out in bells to attract carriage-riders trot around the square. Twenty-seven-year-old driver Seyed Mehdi says on a weekend morning like this, he does get some local riders. But the rest of the time, he's scratching to make ends meet.
SEYED MEHDI: (Through interpreter) We don't need the locals. They already know about this place. We need tourists. We need foreigners.
KENYON: The tourists are starting to show up in larger numbers. But another driver, Jafar, says their money is being sucked up by package tour operators and hotels.
JAFAR: (Speaking Farsi).
KENYON: "We need some propaganda," he says with a laugh. "I'm telling you, those tour operators ignore us completely. Ahmed Turkan minds a visitor-free handicrafts store nearby. He says no one he knows is especially interested in whether Iran's reformers or hard-line conservatives will be in charge of the next Parliament. What people, he says, is some action on getting the economy moving. He spreads his hands and asks, is it wrong to be friends with the outside world?
AHMED TURKAN: (Through interpreter) Some 50 years ago, with very little tourists, you could have seen more people here on the square. There could be a hell of a lot more people standing on this square. But as everyone keeps telling us, the signs are promising.
(CROSSTALK IN FARSI)
KENYON: In terms of sheer numbers of visitors, the signs are indeed promising. Visits to Isfahan were up 60 percent last year. That's according to Mohsen Yarmohamadiyan at the provincial culture and tourism department. He pauses a meeting to say that in the wake of last year's nuclear deal, Iran is starting to overcome the relentless bad press it gets in the West.
MOHSEN YARMOHAMADIYAN: (Through interpreter) Ever since this new government took over, they've been trying to bring the real image of this nation to the world. We're slowly correcting a lot of misinformation.
KENYON: But for Isfahan, that good news also comes with a challenge. Yarmohamadiyan says much needs to be done if the province is to be able to accommodate the expected influx of people should the numbers continue to grow.
YARMOHAMADIYAN: (Through interpreter) As more people come to Isfahan, we're urging hotels to build more rooms. We also have around a thousand historic houses here, and we're urging the owners to consider converting them into boutique hotels.
KENYON: On the other hand, development doesn't always get top priority. After years of debate, Yarmohamadiyan says builders of a new subway line have agreed to reroute it around major cultural sites, including those at Imam Square.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUSHING WATER)
KENYON: The Zayandeh River passes through another famous Isfahan site - the 33-arch bridge, or at least it does when water levels are high enough, which hasn't been often in recent years. People here are hoping the winter rains are replenishing the river and that the government can stay on the path of opening Iran up to an outside world that has been very leery of coming to visit. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Isfahan.
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