Monday, July 05, 2004

Music, dancing but no religious police on sun-splashed Kish

Forum: "Music, dancing but no religious police on sun-splashed Kish

KISH ISLAND, Iran, March 12 - Iranian women ride bikes, roar atop the waves on jet skis or just soak in the warm rays of the beach without the requisite head covering. There is even a roped-off stretch of sand where male and female foreigners can mingle.

WHAT'S FROWNED upon on the Iranian mainland is tolerated on Kish, a sun-splashed island in the Persian Gulf that has become an experiment into how far the country's Islamic rulers are willing to go to attract foreign investment.
The island was initially developed under the reign of the last shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who built hotels and a casino to lure rich Arabs to Kish. Iranians were barred without special authorization.

Now the island has been established as a free-trade zone, providing a respite for well-heeled Tehran residents who are weary of the restrictions imposed by the Islamic Republic through religious police who scour the city for signs of deviance.
Religious police are non-existent on Kish and the regular police are rarely seen. Meantime, retail outlets are plentiful.

"I told my boss in Tehran that if you want to attract tourists here you still have to lift some restrictions. Why not somebody having a beer on the beach or during his meal," said one local official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Such ideas would be heresy on the Iranian mainland, but on Kish, it's indicative of the sentiment on this island paradise which wants to become the tourist and business center of the gulf. Partly, of course, its distance from the capital makes it easier to experiment on Kish. It's also a matter of income level. Unlike most other Iranian cities, Kish has the air of prosperity. The taxis are all new model Mercedez Benz and Toyotas. Vehicles are air conditioned and drivers wear their seat belts, again a rarity in other cities. GUCCI AND GAP Kish promotes itself as an island getaway. The hotels and other services are similar to other European countries and the 55-square-mile island is dotted with brand-name outlets such as Timberland, Gucci and Gap.

There are 30 flights daily to Kish and many Iranians visit to acquire home appliances and electronic goods, which are much cheaper than the mainland because of the zero tax. There are limits to what each person can bring home, but smugglers are willing to help those who want to exceed their allotment. Loud rock music blares from all the malls and live bands play regularly in the island's restaurants. You are as likely to hear Frank Sinatra croon "New York, New York" as you are to hear the Persian pop enjoyed by Iranian expatriates in the United States, especially in southern California, known as Tehrangeles. The management of some cafes and restaurants are even willing to tolerate dancing. In Tehran, an owner would be shut down simply for having live music - dancing would never even be contemplated. WOOING EXPATRIATES Hotel owner Hossein Sabet hopes that the incentives offered on Kish will draw other Iranians to invest in the country. "I am an entrepreneur and I have 11 hotels in Europe, but being an Iranian I felt I had to do something," he said. "I have been back for six years ago, and I want to encourage other Iranian business men and artists to come back and build Persia again, " he said.

Sabet recently opened the Dariush Grand Hotel on Kish, named after the Achaemenian kings who built the legendary palace of Persepolis in the southern Iranian province of Fars. The palace is the model for his hotel, Sabet said. Persepolis was built in 518 BC by Dariush I and looted by Alexander the Great not long after the death of the last Achaemenian king, Dariush III, about 200 years later. Sabet has also constructed an acquarium that he insisted will rival Seaworld in Orlando, Fla. But while Kish tests the limits of the nation's religious curbs, it must await action by the parliament in Tehran to push ahead with its main ambition, establishing a base for foreign companies. The Iranian parliament, dominated by supporters of President Khatami, recently approved legislation on foreign investment, seen by economists as the answer to the nation's economic ills. But the bill, which would offer security to foreign investors, was rejected by the Council of Guardians, charged with ensuring that all legislation conforms to Islamic law. Parliamentarians have vowed to press again for action, and Kish's leaders believe the island could be the first to benefit.



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