Lauren Keith, destination editor for MENA of “Lonely Planet” is an American – British traveller. She was in Iran in May 2019. Her visit comes days after her visit to Jordan and the U.S. A while ago, Iran Nomad Tours contacted Lauren to see if she is interested to visit the very authentic Iran and join their featured “Kuch tour” in which they accompany nomads during their seasonal migration. As she puts it: “I thought Iranian hospitality as it is in the Arab world? I can say it was even greater.”
Despite all the difficulties for bringing British citizens, Iran Nomad Tours could arrange to have Lauren Keith in Iran to show Iran from a different aspect.
And after the trip In an experience exchange meeting with Lauren on May, 26th in Isfahan, she explained about herself, how she joined Lonely Planet, how their company operates, how listings are updated, and her unique experience with Bakhtiari Nomads in the Zagros Mountains. We hope this experience would be helpful for developing Iran tourism. The following documented interview can be intriguing for tourism operators and young start-ups trying to work in Iran.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I am Lauren. I am the destination editor for the Middle East and North Africa at Lonely Planet. I’ve been there for five and a half years in the office in London. My background is journalism and specifically at the news. I have studied journalism at the University of Kansas and then moved to London. I worked in marketing for a while, then worked for a software company as a technical writer.
How did you join Lonely Planet?
Actually, I got started at Lonely Planet doing technical writing for writers to teach how to use Lonely Planet’s content management system. After a couple of years, I started working as a destination editor.
How did the Lonely Planet start?
It started about 45 years ago. A British couple travelled overland from London to Melbourne. As soon as they got to Melbourne, everyone asked them about their trip, and how it went? where they stayed? and how they could do it themselves? So they have the genius idea to write a book about it. The first book is called “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring”. And it sold very quickly, they printed another one. And then they started to work in countries outside of southeast Asia. Now we cover every single country that we can travel to in printed guidebooks, digital E-Books, articles on the website, and we also have a mobile phone app.
What do you do exactly?
I find the writers who update the guidebooks, who write online articles and also local resident contributors in cities across the 18 countries (in Middle East and North Africa) that I look after.
Iran is always a challenge for us. A lot of our writers are Americans or British and what we try to do to update the guidebooks is to go anonymously. So we don’t want any of the hotels or restaurants or anyone to know that we are from Lonely Planet, because we want their opinions to be unbiased and we want them to experience as exact same as a traveller does. Because of that trust and reputation is what makes Lonely Planet such a good guide book in the eyes of so many travellers.
Everytime we decide to update the guidebook, I put a call out to them and say we are updating Morroco, send me why you think you should work on this project. And I usually choose between 4-8 writers depending on the size of country and all of the places we should cover. They usually spend 3-8 weeks on the ground, reserachin, going to every single place we cover, every hotel, every restaurant, and finding new places as well.
How do writers apply for Lonely Planet?
So to become a writer at Lonely Planet to work on guidebooks, we require people to take a writing test, because it is usually native speakers and 12 other languages we publish for them. After that, they go through the interview process and if they are successful at both, they can join our team.
So, are the guide books published in different languages?
Yes, Lonely Planet Guide Books are published in different languages including Spanish, Italian, French, and etc. Since different nationalities may be interested in various places to visit, content in each language may be different from each other. So it is their decision to write about something other than a thing in the English book.
How did you get interested in coming to Iran personally?
As I am from the U.S and live in London, so at some levels, Iran has always been off-limits to me, so I was very curious to visit sometime! Many of my friends have come here and told me how amazing it is and so that just kept feeding my imagination and made me want to make this possible.
How was your experience in Iran?
Coming here for the first time, you go to someone and they say do you want tea? Do you want this, do you want that? And I am like, I do not know! What do they want from me? I think with me: “If I say yes to a tea, what do they want from me?” The answer is “nothing”!! They want nothing in return. A conversation, a smile,…
How did you find Iran Nomad Tours?
Actually, Mohammad contacted me. It came to be a really interesting proposition and is right for travelers who are looking to do something that is more off the beaten track, things that are authentic and traditional, to show them how beautiful this world is and how diverse and unique each of these places is, we don’t travel to places to feel at home, we want to experience something different. So going on a Nomad Tour sounded like a perfect opportunity to see Iran in a different aspect but also get to see some of the more traditional tours.
And how did you join the Nomad Tours to experience a nomadic life. What is the first image coming to your mind when you think of your adventure?
It sounded really intriguing. I looked up the website and did some reading. I told Mohammad that yeah we could make it. The tour was amazing. The families were incredible, they were such lovely people. They were so generous, so welcoming.
The days start very early in the morning. They sleep outside under the sky. The lives of these nomads are just so impressive and incredible and show their strength and bravery. It’s an amazing life that we could barely keep up most days. We started in the early morning and we hiked anywhere between 15-20 kilometres, very steep terrain. They were doing it all with everything they owned, their tent, their food, their cooking utensils all on the back of horses and donkeys. And of course, they have herds of sheep and goats. It kind of felt like a small parade. Going into a valley with the bells of goats ringing.
According to all your journeys and studies in different cultures, what was unique about Nomads & nomadic lifestyle?
I think I am still processing… I was just so impressed by these people’s lives, you know, amazed that they make this work and they want to make this work! And today, it is 2019 and we talk a lot about doing a digital detox, going on something remote to get away from it all. It was there, it was a real digital detox but with more authentic aspects. No phones, no internet no nothing. When people do a normal digital detox, it is more superficial, whereas this felt something bigger, something more social and cultural and authentic. And there was a genuine connection there and you do it for more for the family to experience that rather than doing something personal for yourself.
When will the Iran Guide Book be republished?
Well, there will be some writers sent to Iran at the beginning of 2020 to gather information for republishing the book in late 2020.
So will Lonely Planet come to visit Iran again?
Yes! We are trying … It is not that people around the world think Iran is dangerous to visit. It is more like they just do not know what is there. What is Iran? And this is our responsibility to publish real content about Iran. But to be honest, it’s not going so good. There have been some of our writers rejected to get Visa already.
There are some red regions on website maps considered to be dangerous. How does Lonely Planet determine the safety of a place on its maps?
Lonely Planet only follows the rules of the government. As it was an Australian, then American and now a British company; so they obey governmental decisions about safety.
Undoubtedly Lonely Planet has so many great places introduced to all people around the world, but whenever you ask a local who has read the book, they think of some places missing in the Books. Has Lonely Planet ever considered having local partners?
Well, yes. We are working with some local partners to make the best out of what we present. We would surely like to have Iranian local partners but we can’t hire anyone in Iran since payments to Iran are under sanctions.
Considering Nomads and their different lifestyle, what do you think can be done for them?
I think we must emphasize and show nomads how important and different their life is. Because they have so low confidence. But because we have a completely different life it does not mean we have a better life. Both are very beautiful, and they do not have to change for us. Like what is happening in the project of Nomad Tours.
That must have been a tough experience for both sides. For Nomad Tours to arrange and try their best to represent one of the Iranian uncovered tourism attractions (nomadic culture) in Kuch tour, in its true way and for Lauren to accompany this authentic and hard experience.
Iran is often overshadowed by the media’s false representation worldwide. It’s not far removed from the days when nobody dared come to Iran. That’s why nowadays, there is one common reaction among those who, despite all disagreements and worries, travel to Iran. “We’d never imagined Iran to be like this… so welcoming, caring, friendly and secure,…”.
Now what we as Iran Nomad Tours are trying to do is to help an ethnic group living in Zagros Mountain ranges preserve. To show the cultural diversity how connected people might be despite all the distances and help them understand all the similarities while having various languages, skin colours, regions and cultures. It is always so fantastic when two different worlds of Nomads & tourists meet. Despite the fact that they don’t talk the same language, they really make a connection.
We firmly believe that the unique and memorable experience of migration with nomad families in lush green valleys and mountainous regions, which is like no other experience, have a mutual benefit for both the nomads and tourists. On one hand, the visitors would experience something quite different from what they see in their daily lives in cities. Passing through pastoral landscapes and living the authentic life of nomads influenced by the mother nature, leave them in deep appreciation for this lifestyle, and it is going to be a turning point in their lives since they would not be the same persons when they go back to their daily routine. On the other hand, when nomads see how their unique lifestyle is being appreciated by the visitors, they might hopefully see this as an opportunity to stay, rather than to choose to abandon a precious lifestyle.