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Iran's 'Free Zone' Island is a Tourist Wonderland

Andrew Burke|Special to CNBC.com
Monday, 6 Dec 2010 | 1:56 PM ET

Kish is a desert island in the Persian Gulf that has been transformed into a tourist wonderland — for Iranians. It's clean, the shopping is cheap because it's a free-trade zone and there are dedicated beaches for men and women, making it one of only a couple of beach destinations in the Islamic Republic.

Iranians see Kish the way Americans do Hawaii: the island is both a novelty — for most Iranians this is the only beach resort they’ll ever be able to visit — and generally more liberated than the rest of Iran. As one islander told us, many Iranians understand the "free" in free-trade zone to apply to social activities as well. But for foreigners, used to swimming and sunbathing with men and women and with no interest in duty-free DVD players, the appeal isn’t so great.

Kish Airlines is the only company that flies to Kish island. It's a 30-minute flight to Kish from  Dubai.
Photo credit: Joe Dewitt, CNBC
Kish Airlines is the only company that flies to Kish island. It's a 30-minute flight to Kish from  Dubai.

In recent years, the 10-mile-long, five-mile-wide island has been booming. Hotels, shopping centers and theme parks have emerged from the sand to cater to migrant workers on "change visa" runs and more than 1 million Iranians a year. And while UN-backed sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program have had a serious impact on the mainland, reports out of Kish suggest that investment in the island — primarily in construction of tourist facilities but also in a natural gas project — continues although at a reduced pace.

Aside from the novelty of getting into Iran (no small accomplishment for most Americans, for whom getting a visa to the mainland is usually a hassle), there are reasons to visit Kish. There are a few interesting historical sights, such as the Payab cisterns built to store fresh water. The coastal bike path is fun as long as it's not summer. The shopping, which is possibly the biggest attraction, is often cheaper than Dubai, even though much of the merchandise comes from the emirate.

Kish Island is first recorded in the memoirs of Nearchus, the Greek sailor commissioned by Alexander the Great to explore the Persian Gulf in 325 BC. In the Middle Ages Kish became an important trading center under its own powerful Arab dynasty, and at one time supported a population of 40,000. The main town was Harireh, which is believed to be the town referred to by poet Sa'di in his famous work, Golestan (Rose Garden).

Kish was known for the quality of its pearls; when Marco Polo was visiting the imperial court in China, he remarked on the beauty of the pearls worn by one of the emperor's wives and was told they had come from Kish. In the 14th century Kish fell into decline and remained obscure until the 1970s, when the last shah started transforming it into a playground for the rich and famous.

It was quite a turnaround, too. A couple of quiet fishing villages were soon complemented by an international airport, a beachfront hotel that was at the time the most luxurious in the Gulf, and even a grand casino. Concorde was chartered to ferry guests in from Paris, and pre-revolution Kish was one of the most exciting destinations in the region.

After the 1979 revolution, the casino, the bikinis and the cocktails were no more and the focus changed to domestic tourism and trade. These days Kish has more than 50 hotels, several theme parks and numerous shopping malls.

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Andrew Burke is a travel writer and photographer and has contributed to Lonely Planet travel guides.

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