Farhad Pouladi, AFP
Kish Island: Iran once flew high as the undisputed king of the world carpet industry but its magic is fading amid a rising challenge from Asian countries where labour is cheaper.
A world away from haggling in smoky rooms of the bazaar, traders gathering for a fair at a gleaming exhibition hall on Iran’s southern resort island of Kish grumbled at the hard economic reality of their business.
“We are experiencing an unhealthy competition in the world markets for our handmade carpets,” said the chairman of National Carpet Centre of Iran, Morteza Faraji.
“Countries like India, Pakistan and China can produce carpets cheaper than us due to their special labour laws,” he explained.
Iran’s share of the world export market has been whittled down $480 million (Rs1,955 crore) in 2006 from $522 million in 2001, giving it a 40% share.
The romance of the handmade Persian carpet remains undisputed, bringing a whiff of mystical oriental culture into affluent homes in the United States and Europe.
Iranian handmade carpets, woven mostly by women, use naturally coloured wool fibres. The most expensive items, which can retail for hundreds of thousands of dollars, are made with silk fibres which lend them a shiny look.
Meticulously woven by hand, a genuine Persian carpet consists of millions of little knots carefully juxtaposed. It is said to keep in its heart the traditional songs sung by the weavers — giving it a magical touch.
But not even this most exotic of industries — Iran’s top earning non-oil export 0151 can escape the hard realities of global business.
“We have not paid attention to advertising and promotion as we should have,” said Faraji, whose state-owned centre is aimed at promoting the export of Persian carpets.
“We should show our potential consumers that the best floor covering is the carpet and the best of the best is the Iranian handmade carpet,” Faraji added.
He said Iran, most of whose carpet exports go to the United States, Europe, Japan and the Arabian peninsula, needs to look for new markets.
“We are currently eyeing Russia. We sense that it has a lot of potential,” Faraji said.
Carpets, along with pistachio nuts, are one of the few products Iran can export to its arch foe the United States after then US president Bill Clinton exempted them from the US trade embargo in 2000.
“If we want to maintain Persian carpets’ share of the market we have to pay a great deal of attention to specialized advertisements,” said Houshang Fakher, a leading member of Iranian handmade carpet exporters union.
“We have to spend a great deal of money to attract our potential buyers to our fine products.”
He said Iran should work harder to promote the benefits of real handmade carpets instead of cheap synthetic ones, which he said become infested with microscopic bugs after a short period of time.
More than two million people are involved in the industry — dying the fibres, weaving, or selling the carpets in bazaars or exporting them.
Commerce Minister Massoud Mir-Kazemi also urged carpet makers to be more responsive to the needs of a fast-changing market where consumers are increasingly interested in more modern and geometric patterns.
“Since our supply is not based on the market’s need, the price of our carpets has dwindled. So we have to export carpets based on the needs of the market.
“We hope that one day we will able to gain more than 40% of the world market and each square metre (11 square feet) of Persian carpet is sold (retail) at $300 (406 euros) as the case was in the past and not the current $50 a square metre.”
Another major problem for Iran is the lack of tourists visiting the Islamic republic. People are put off by the regional security situation, difficulties in obtaining visas and the country’s poor image abroad.
“The most important thing that helps enhancing our carpet sales and the export of other products is to let as many tourists as possible to come here,” said Amir Reza Mesgarzadeh, a leading carpet exporter.
“Tourists are the best target for advertisements. Why do you think so many of our carpets are sold in Dubai, it is simply because tourists are so abundant there,” he added.
A new Hong Kong-based body — the World Handmade Carpet Organisation — has been created to promote the sale of handmade carpets but Iran has yet to join China, India and Pakistan as a member.
“Please pay more attention to advertisements and please allow more people to visit your lovely country,” said its chairman Akhtar Nazir Khan of Pakistan.
“In the West, they think that there are restrictions here especially on women, by allowing them to come here they will know you better and your handmade marvels will thrive.”