Luxury train arrives in Iran carrying new opportunities for the country's tourism industry

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LEADIN: A luxury train cruise carrying mostly western passengers has rolled into the northwestern Iranian city of Zanjan. It brings new opportunities for the country's tourism industry, which experts say could host around 5 million visitors by the end of the year. STORYLINE: Rolling into northwestern Iran, this luxury train is making a stop at Zanjan station. It is marking the dawn of a new era in Iranian tourism. Carrying mostly western passengers, the train has come to the country as part of a two-week rail-cruise named "Jewels of Persia". The European-made train - named 'Golden Eagle Danube Express' - is known as a "hotel on wheels". There are 67 passengers onboard from all around the world, including Australia, Britain, America, Ireland, Mexico, Germany, Kuwait and France. The train is currently operated by Golden Eagle Luxury Trains Limited, a UK-based company. It began its two-week journey in mid-October (14 October) from Hungary and has now arrived in Iran after passing through Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. It's offering passengers the five-star treatment with complimentary alcohol at its bar car right up to the Iranian border. After that, only non-alcoholic beverages are served. The train cars boast lavish decorations made with wooden panels and brass fittings, resembling 1950s design. It has a bar lounge car and two restaurant cars. Food is cooked in the train's kitchen car and stocks of fresh ingredients are bought at every stop. The deluxe sleeping cars and berths are equipped with five en-suite cabins, which feature private bathrooms and hot showers. Individually controlled air-conditioning and lighting with dimmer switches are also features in the train bedrooms. Armchairs in the plush cabins allow travellers to sit back and watch the scenery roll by. Tickets start from $9,000 USD per person and go up to $15,000 USD for deluxe cabins. Tim Littler is the President and Founder of Golden Eagle Luxury Trains Limited and leader of 'Jewels of Persia'. "Since the election of your new president, we can see a change in attitude towards tourism and I saw the day we left Budapest that the (Iranian) government had invested - or were about to invest - 220 million dollars in new tourist infrastructure which gives the impression that Iran is welcoming tourists," he says. "So, we are pleased to be the first here." According to Littler, nine same tours have already been reserved for 2015 and 12 others for 2016. Most of the passengers onboard the Golden Eagle are actually tour operators themselves. They're taking the luxury train ride to learn more about future Iran-bound journeys. Jim Friedlander is the President of Academic Arrangements Abroad, he's riding the train with his wife Liz Irwin. He's dispatched several air tours carrying American travellers to Iran in the past. He says the trip is helping him check the quality of the tracks as well as the train services, that way he may charter it for other American passengers in the future. According to Friedlander, there's two reasons why Iran is showing signs of becoming a popular travel destination. "Number one, you're in a neighbourhood that has a lot of instability and Iran is relatively stable in a tough neighbourhood," he says. "I think number two, there's an opening. Your current president is clearly trying to improve the visibility and the attitude of the rest of the world towards Iran. He's got another big test coming up in the next few weeks (nuclear talks with West) but I think the direction is clear and I think inviting people to come see for themselves what's happening in Iran is one of the best tools of foreign diplomacy." She's a professor of Art, Law and Cultural Property and a former law librarian at the Library of Congress. You can license this story through AP Archive:

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