Tough sell: Touring audacious Afghanistan

Sanjeev Gupta thinks it's about time war-torn Afghanistan had a tourism industry in a peaceful corner of the country.

Tough sell: Touring audacious Afghanistan

Sanjeev Gupta thinks it’s about time war-torn Afghanistan had a tourism industry in a peaceful corner of the country.

Gupta, a regional program manager for the nongovernmental organization, the Aga Khan Foundation, says that even though some areas are too volatile to visit, Bamiyan in central Afghanistan is safe and has an abundance of cultural, historical and natural treasures to lure international travelers.

“Bamiyan has a lot of tourist potential,” Gupta said. “We need to correct the perception of Afghanistan. The whole country is not dangerous.”

The Aga Khan Foundation, based in Geneva, created the Bamiyan Ecotourism Project to develop tourist infrastructure, train guides, cooks and hoteliers, and raise awareness of the region’s natural attractions. It’s a $1 million, three-year program.

Tough sell
Gupta concedes the task of establishing a tourism industry is a daunting task even in a relatively safe province like Bamiyan.

Since the Soviet invasion in 1979 and three decades of war, few tourists have traveled to Afghanistan. The United States and many other Western governments have issued travel advisories strongly discouraging nonessential travel to Afghanistan. And there are no commercial flights. Tourists must travel the 150-mile, 10-hour journey from Kabul on a dirt road that winds high up into the snowcapped Koh-i-Baba mountains before dipping down into the verdant Bamiyan Valley. The alternative road is controlled by the Taliban, who were ousted in a U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

But Gupta sees a long-term plan. “It’s not that we’re starting the program today and tomorrow there are hordes of tourists coming,” he said. “But it builds a base.”

To be sure, Bamiyan is already a success story in the post-Taliban era.

Virtually free of opium poppies, Bamiyan’s fields are bursting with potato plants. Scores of schools have been built, with girls 45 percent of provincial students, up from almost zero in 2001 under the fundamentalist Taliban. In stark contrast, 590 schools have closed in southern Afghanistan and 300,000 students have been left without classrooms due to Taliban attacks, according to the Associated Press.

History of visitors
And Bamiyan does have tourist infrastructure. Ever since the days of the fabled Silk Road that linked Rome to China, the province has been a stop for international travelers from Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan to first lady Laura Bush. In June, the first lady met with women training at a police academy and toured the construction site of an orphanage.

Tea shop owners at the edge of one lake say that on Fridays, the Islamic weekend, the parking lot fills with dozens of cars – most belonging to picnicking Afghan families.

In past years, most tourists came to see two giant statues of Buddha, at 174 feet and 125 feet, which were built a century before the birth of Islam out of the red sandstone cliffs 1,500 years ago. At the time, Bamiyan was a thriving center of Buddhism.

In 2001, at the height of its power, the Taliban government used rockets and tanks to destroy the Buddhist landmarks, which they considered to be idols of infidels.

Now, Bamiyan wants its history back.

Push to rebuild
Gov. Habiba Sarabi – the only female governor in Afghanistan – says she hopes at least one of the Buddha statues will be rebuilt, a difficult project that several organizations have offered to fund, but that is still awaiting approval from the Ministry of Culture. In Kabul, opinion is divided on whether the restoration of Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic sixth century history is an appropriate program.

Bamiyan also boasts Afghanistan’s first national park, a 220-square-mile zone around Band-i-Amir – six sapphire-blue lakes set amid barren sandstone badlands. Getting there, however, takes a three-hour drive in a 4×4 vehicle over a rocky road between rusting carcasses of Soviet tanks and toothy 10,000-foot-tall mountains that have not been entirely cleared of land mines. Sarabi hopes that one day a paved road will link Kabul to Band-i-Amir.

“Tourism can bring a lot of income and a lot of change to people’s lives,” she said.

But Abdul Razak, who was sitting in the empty restaurant of his 18-room Roof of Bamiyan Hotel, says tourism has a long way to go before becoming a reality. “Bamiyan (security) is OK, but outside of Bamiyan is bad. The most important thing for tourists is peace.”

On a recent Sunday, Pei-Yin Lew, a 22-year-old Australian medical student, enjoyed the calm of the Band-i-Amir lakes in the new national park.

“One of the main reasons I wanted to come to Afghanistan was to see these lakes,” she said, standing above the string of brilliant blue lagoons. “It’s truly beautiful here.”

Afghanistan tourism
Afghanistan’s political instability has taken a toll on its nascent tourism industry.

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, there have been no reliable statistics, but industry officials agree that visitors have declined dramatically in recent months.

The bombing this month outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul that killed 41 people, and a January attack on the capital’s only five-star hotel has cut business by 70 percent, according to André Mann, founder of the Great Game Travel Co. in Kabul, which offers customized adventure treks.

“Things can change rapidly,” Mann said. “We’ve had some setbacks. We’re a little discouraged, but we’re hoping for a better 2009.”

U.S. travel advisory
The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens against travel to any area of Afghanistan.

“No part of Afghanistan should be considered immune from violence, and the potential exists throughout the country for hostile acts, either targeted or random, against American and other western nationals at any time.

“There is an on-going threat to kidnap and assassinate U.S. citizens and Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) workers throughout the country.”

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