How to get into Iran without a visa (Kish)

I decided a number of years to go to every country in the world. Things went pretty easy for a while as I knocked Europe off my list and most of South America. Lately, it’s been getting a little more difficult with revolutions, impossible visas and places that are just too dangerous for travelers. So I started looking for loopholes. Iran has a very difficult visa policy. They don’t give them away without a fight. However, there’s one chink in their collective armor: The island of Kish.

Kish is a little tiny speck in the Persian Gulf that someone in Iran decided would be the next Dubai. That plan turned out to be a little too ambitious and they compromised at making it a free trade zone and easier to get into than the rest of Iran. How do they do that? No visa is required to enter Kish. It’s Iran “lite” but it’s still Iran and if you’re checking off countries like I am or just want a taste of what mainland Iran is, then Kish is a perfect stop. It’s also turned out to be a convenient place for Filipino and Indian workers from Dubai to renew their UAE expired visas. Kish hasn’t gotten the advertisement that it’s Arab neighbors have gotten so there’s not a lot of tourists visiting. There’s also a few very strict rules that can put off would be travelers. If you can get past that, it makes a great little island to visit for a day or two.

First, the cons: There’s been a little tension between America and Iran over the last decade or so, so there’s a few questions to be answered before you get your passport stamped. Since Americans have imposed economic sanctions on Iran, be forewarned that ATMs will not work with your debit card. Many signs are in English as well as Farsi, but there are a lot of places that just don’t bother, so you’ll always be the last one to know what’s going on.Alcohol is verboten and there’s no tolerance of staying in a room with someone from the opposite sex who is not your spouse. Finally, you can’t just stay at ANY hotel. It’s either a dormitory style that looks like a cross between jail and college (designed for long-term visa waitees), or a tourist hotel that costs at least twice what it should. The good news is that your expensive hotel often includes lots of perks like breakfast and lunch, complimentary mini-bar and a bag full of odd things like perfume, wet wipes and other toiletries normally not provided with a room.

On the plus side, the Iranians are charming people and the island is very attractive. It’s only 30 minutes flight from Dubai and is small enough to navigate pretty easily.If you’d like to take a break from taxis, it’s easy to rent a bicycle or electric scooter to navigate your way around the beautiful beaches and some of the other attractions. It takes 4 hours to bicycle around the entire island, and 2 1/2 to go by electric scooter. The down side is the battery only lasts for 2 hours, so the second plan is really impossible.

I opted to rent a bike at the beach. Kish has bike trails that circle the island and they actually look more fun than the regular roads. The beaches are beautiful with white sand and crystal clear blue water. There’s a pier that extends a few hundred yards into the sea that makes a nice walk, facilitates fishing or gets you to an aquarium party boat. Maybe the authorities should have spelled the island “kitsche” because that’s what it is. The beach is filled with odd oversized prop statues placed randomly on the beach. There’s a 20 foot tall shovel and pail, a gargantuan girl lying on her stomach with her feet in the air, giant sand castles, and a colossal set of suitcases placed in the sand for no apparent reason. Being the kid at heart that I am, I was happy to pose with every one of them. As cheesy as they may appear, they bring a really fun element to the shore.

The most touristic spot on the island is an underground Iranian cistern that has been restored and slightly embellished to make it more tourist friendly. A cistern doesn’t really sound that interesting, but this one is. Water was captured, purified and allowed to run through underground canals in Kish’s history so that it was accessible for the inhabitants. This is a very dry portion of the world and Kish has no lakes, so this reservoir was necessary for survival. It’s a fascinating tour underground learning about the history of the area, observing original tools, utensils and other items that the ancient Kish used. The ceiling is the actual fossilized original ceiling and there are sections of the attraction that have been left as they were found to give visitors an idea of the original condition of the place. After the tour, there’s a cute little heritage area where one can drink tea and enjoy the experience of being there.

There’s also the ancient city of Harireh which is Kish’s big ancient archaeology site. It’s not Pompeii, but it’s a nice walk, boasts a restored 3,000 year old building and some excavations to give you a little idea of what the town must have been like way back when. You’ll want to visit early because there is little or no shade.

The Mysterious Greek Ship is on the west coast and is touted as a big attraction. In reality, it’s really just a Greek ship that got stuck on the reef and the cost of salvaging was more than it was worth. So, it became a Kish photo op and something to do on an island that doesn’t have a lot of tourist sites.

The Iranians I met couldn’t have been friendlier and more hospitable. Most Americans are terrified of going to Iran. Guess what? Many Iranians are terrified of Texas. Like our stereotype of them burning flags in the street (which they weren’t), their image of Texas is of frequent gunfights like they’ve seen in cowboy movies. Ridiculous? Yes. As ridiculous as what we think about them.

If you’re in the Middle East and you’re looking to collect a new country, refrigerator magnet or a stamp in your passport, a day or two in Kish might be a perfect stop. The Persian island even has a KFC! Yes, but  it stands for Kish Fried Chicken.

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