Is it safe to travel to Iran? Why you should still consider visiting

Everything is fine in Iran. Until it's not. Until you allegedly fly a drone without permission and you wind up in jail. Until you annoy the wrong people and find yourself incarcerated with little chance of release. A political prisoner, or perhaps not.

Then, everything is not fine in Iran. Everything is almost as bad as it could be. And you don't know when or if you'll ever get home again.

This is the situation that faces three Australians in Iran right now. Jolie King, Mark Firkin and Kylie Moore-Gilbert are all in jail. All three visited the country with, I'm sure, the highest hopes of adventure, of cultural enlightenment and of the warmest of welcomes, and all three are now behind bars.

How do you explain that away to people?

I've always supported travel to Iran. I've visited the country and absolutely loved my time there. I was constantly bowled over by the kindness of strangers in Iran, by the genuine goodwill shown towards me by people who were just happy to see that the world was still interested in their beautiful, historic home.

I strolled the choked streets of Tehran. I wandered the bazaars and the mosques of Esfahan. I explored mud-brick alleyways in Yazd. I saw the spectacular "pink mosque" in Shiraz.

I met people in Iran – so many people. Local Iranians who invited me to drink tea with them, to tour mosques with them, to explore their city with them, to eat dinner with them. I took up so many of these invitations. The experiences I had with those people changed my life and changed the way I see the world.

Friends asked me later if I was followed by the secret police in Iran and I said, I don't know. They're secret. But I certainly never felt that I was being surveilled or that I was in any way unsafe.

So yes, I tell everyone to go to Iran. Ignore the news stories. Ignore the government warnings. Ignore the threats of war and just go to this place and see it for yourself. You will love it. The bad things you've read about will all be proved false.

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And yet, clearly, some of the bad things you've read are true. Two travel bloggers were thrown in jail recently for allegedly flying a drone in a military area. It's a careless thing to do, if it's true. It's dumb, really. But it's not so crazy that plenty of us wouldn't do the same thing without even thinking about it. Moore-Gilbert, meanwhile, has been sentenced to 10 years' jail on charges that remain unclear.

So is it still OK to travel to Iran? The answer is not as simple as it used to be.

Personally, I would say yes. I would still go. I will still go. I love the country and I'm really passionate about bringing its true nature to light, about revealing another side of this place, one that's not the Iranian government or its ruling ayatollah.

But that won't work for every traveller. People have different priorities. They have different levels of acceptable risk. And I can't sit here at my desk, typing away in safety and comfort, and tell everyone that Iran is totally fine and you'll have no problems there when that's clearly not the case.

You need to make your own decision on Iran, to weigh the rewards and the risks. Though the Australian government has slapped its orange, "Reconsider your need to travel" rating on the country, it's highly likely, in my opinion, that everything really would be fine for you if you decided to travel there.

Thousands of Australians do – more and more each year – and leave hassle-free. They have similar experiences to the ones I had: the genuine and touching interactions with local people; the discovery of a proud and ancient culture with so much to offer the modern world.

But there are risks involved. Genuine risks. There's so much misinformation out there about Iran, so it's frustrating in the extreme when stories like those of the three Australians incarcerated make the headlines. Because that's all anyone ever hears about the country. And they happen to be true.

Iran, to me, is a country of good and kind people, of welcoming people, intelligent and deeply thoughtful people. It's also a country with a hardline government that treats its citizens poorly and is making very powerful enemies outside its borders.

Everything is not fine in Iran. But I still hope people make the decision to see it.

Have you been to Iran? What were your experiences there? Would you recommend others still travel there in light of the recent arrests?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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