KISH — The island of Kish is a far cry from the rest of Iran. Although it's just 19 kilometers from the mainland, this Persian Gulf outpost features the kind of open hedonism that would be shocking in other parts of the country.

As hard-line politicians and religious figures target so-called Western imports such as concerts, which have increasingly been allowed under President Hassan Rouhani, moderate Iranians are escaping to Kish, a place where gathering to listen to music goes unquestioned. In the seaside amphitheater on the eastern side of the island and in Kish's large hotels, foreign musicians dominate the scene. Among the most popular are the Irish-English singer Chris de Burgh and the Greek-American pianist Yanni.

Kish's history is ancient like the rest of the country. The island only became a tourist hotspot shortly before the Islamic revolution in 1979. The last Shah of Iran wanted to transform Kish, where there was only dirt at the time, into a luxury oasis for billionaires replete with golf courses and casinos. He envisioned two Concorde planes shuttling elites to the island from Paris and London. Sure enough, Kish drew famous patrons in those days, including Elie de Rothschild, scion of an illustrious French family.

The revolution put an end to the Shah's brief experiment — until now. Kish today boasts large hotels and a 20-year tax exemption. Although it has outlawed bikinis and casinos, the island is home to several shopping malls and wants to compete with Persian Gulf destinations like Dubai. Beaches here are segregated by sex but, at night, you can see groups of young people getting "dangerously" close to each other in the water and girls having their photographs taken by their boyfriends.

Enormous hotels and malls continue to sprout across the flat surface of the island, part of a construction boom built by underpaid Afghan workers. The malls are devoid of Western labels. Instead, they are stocked with brands that have names such as "Veronica Armani" and "Berlusconi."

The pier in Kish — Photo: Ivan Mlinaric

Kish is unique in Iran for its pristine streets lined with flowers, SUVs and gleaming Toyota cabs. Unlike the mainland, the 50 km/hr speed limit is strictly enforced here with the help of cameras and heavy fines. Although Iran has a notoriously strict visa policy for foreign tourists, it's easy to obtain a 14-day visa for Kish that doesn't allow entry to the mainland. About 1.5 million tourists visit the island every year, especially before Christmas.

The island's western coast is home to Kish's native Sunni residents, who live in small houses with low ceilings. They make up about 15% of the population and mainly work as fishermen. There are four Sunni mosques and an Arab bazaar. Locals say they are happy and optimistic about their future. As Sunnis living in a Shia theocracy like Iran, they aren't able to express much discontent. But they are better off than Shiites in neighboring Sunni-ruled Bahrain.

Mahmoud, 51, has a long black beard. He says he moved to Kish 10 years ago from the eastern Iranian city of Zahedan where he says there's no work because the government marginalizes his community — the Baloch minority.

"I own a small shop and I feel at home," he says of his life on Kish.

"Even we Sunnis take part in Ashura, the most pious fast," he says in reference to the Shia day of atonement. That's a bit hard to believe, but even the hidden pleasures of Kish cannot change the public religious pressures of modern Iran.