British-Iranian sculptor at heart of UK's blossoming plan to lure Middle East visitors

Visit Britain hopes jubilee celebrations, such as at the Tower of London, will revitalise the tourism industry

The 'Superbloom' display celebrating Queen Elizabeth's platinum jubilee at the Tower of London. Photo: The Tower of London/Twitter
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Twenty million seeds planted in the moat of the Tower of London are expected to bloom over the early June weekend marking Queen Elizabeth II’s platinum jubilee in a co-ordinated display of colour.

While the unreliable British weather leaves the final outcome something of a lottery, organisers at the Tower — the 1,000-year-old fortress which houses the Crown Jewels and was the scene for Anne Boleyn’s execution — are confident that whatever the result, it will be impressive.

One person with a vested interest is British-Iranian sculptor Mehrdad Tafreshi, who has been commissioned to display his art throughout the grounds, adding a man-made element to the natural display.

The Tower has been used as a focal point for national occasions in recent times. In 2014, 800,000 ceramic poppies featured in a poignant display marking the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, and in 2018 thousands of flames were lit to mark 100 years since the war ended.

Now, it is a focal point of the jubilee celebrations marking the queen’s 70 years on the throne. It is also an opportunity for London to scream to the world that it is open for business, and tourism in particular. High on the list of tourists Visit Britain hopes will visit the capital this summer are those from the Middle East.

Tafreshi, who was born in Tehran but has spent the past 30 years taking inspiration from the Surrey countryside where he lives, told The National it was a great honour to have been asked to play a part in the celebrations as he has “always admired the honest dedication” of the queen. He has previously exhibited his work at the Chelsea Flower Show where he launches new designs each season, as well as private installations at Microsoft’s offices in Reading, Liverpool University, and the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.

His sculptures take the form of swarms and waves of dragonflies, butterflies and bees dotted around and hovering on the moat, aimed at giving visitors a sense of “upliftment, joy and wonder”.

All the various insects used in the displays are hand crafted in brass and copper — a nod to the detailed ornamental art of his Iranian heritage — so in sunny weather they will give a glistening effect. Despite the importance of the event, they took just two weeks to create and put in place.

Organisers hope the “Superbloom” event will see visitors return once more to peer over the wall, and even grab a mat and slide down into the moat, following a path through the display.

Mehrdad Tafreshi and a brass dragonfly created by him. Photo: Quist

Visitors to the Tower of London dropped 87 per cent during the pandemic and the destination was losing £100 million ($122.6m) a year.

Historic Royal Palaces, which runs the Tower, hopes its place among 2022’s major event will kick-start the tourist flow once more. It is a destination particularly reliant on international tourism as British visitors tend to avoid the queues that come with such a recognisable site.

In 2019, the tourism industry was worth £28 billion ($34.3bn). In 2020 the focus was on rebuilding the domestic market, while 2021 focused on international travellers. This year, Visit Britain is hopeful that £16bn will be reached.

Ms Yates recognises that in many key countries for visitors to Britain, such as China and America, it will take time to persuade many people to travel again. Conversely, for countries with an appetite to travel to the UK, such as the UAE, travel restrictions remained in place for a devastatingly long time. She flagged Visit Britain research earlier this year which suggests four in five people in the Gulf want to make an international trip this year.

Many other British businesses dependent on tourism have been “teetering on the brink”, according to Patricia Yates, interim chief executive of Visit Britain, the national tourism agency.

“Tourism was one of the hardest hit sectors of the economy. It closed down first, it opened up last,” she told The National. “But it was impossible to imagine that it would go on for so long and the changes would be so devastating.”

In 2019, the tourism industry was worth £28 billion ($34.3bn). In 2020 the focus was on rebuilding the domestic market, while 2021 focused on international travellers. This year, Visit Britain is hopeful that £16bn will be reached.

“But we're now at the stage where there are no travel restrictions at all,” she said. “So whether you're vaccinated or not, you can come to Britain, there's no passenger locator for them, there are no testing regimes, and we have completely thrown the borders open.”

The question is whether international travellers will arrive in sufficient numbers to replace the domestic tourists who stayed at home last year, but are fully intent on jetting away this summer.

“That's the sort of balance for the industry. Will we drive international back quickly enough?”

Preparations for the platinum jubilee celebrations — in pictures

To that end, at Dubai Expo the UK government launched the Britain campaign — a global campaign that encourages people to live, work, invest and travel to Britain. It is intended to showcase the best of what Britain has to offer for visitors, students and businesses.

A separate Wego campaign has focused on the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, promoting Britain as a year-round destination.

Rather than simply trying to lift the number of visitors, Visit Britain hopes instead to persuade those that do visit to stay longer. She also recognises that hotels in those areas may need to up their game to provide the luxury experience Gulf travellers demand.

“Part of the story we're telling is don't just come to London, where we know Gulf visitors are immensely loyal and come year upon year, come and explore more of the country. And obviously the message there is we hope people will stay longer, spend more and get a multi-level experience of Britain. We're a really small country but you get huge variations just a couple of hours out of London.”

Updated: May 27, 2022, 12:52 PM