Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tourists Back on Afghan Trail

Afghanistan looks to foreign visitors - and their money - to boost the country and its economy.
By Abdul Baseer

Considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world just one year ago, Afghanistan is determined to throw off its reputation for conflict and put itself back on the tourist trail.

London travel company owner Phil Haines recently led a seven-strong group of Britons on a week's visit to this war-ravaged country and predicts a bright future for the fledgling industry.

"Tourism in Afghanistan has a good future because many people want to visit the country," said Haines. "Afghans are very hospitable and everywhere we went they gave us a warm welcome. It was interesting for us to see their traditions."

Afghanistan's beautiful landscape and ancient monuments have always held a strong attraction for travellers, and the country was a popular tourist destination throughout the Sixties and Seventies.

Young backpackers made up the bulk of the visitors, taking the "Hippy Trail" across southern Europe to Central Asia, via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Soviet invasion in 1978 put an end to such adventures, starting a cycle of conflict and destruction that was to last more than two decades.

The Taleban turned the country into a no-go area by the mid-Nineties. The student militia's reign has left the country's heritage in tatters - with museums and cultural artefacts destroyed. The Bamyan Buddhas, one of the biggest attractions, were reduced to rubble.

In spite of this, the country has retained its wild beauty and the interim administration is confident that visitors will soon return.

Despite unpredictable electricity and water supplies together with an uncertain security situation, Haines' tourist was not put off visiting a country that has made headlines for all the wrong reasons for more than two decades.

"The purpose of our visit is to see all the historical places of the country," Haines told IWPR from his guest-house in Kabul. "We started our tour in the capital, and visited some historical places in the provinces as well as the grave of Humaira, the wife of former king Zaheer Shah, who has just returned from exile.

"We also bought some interesting gifts such as Afghan rugs and saw the remains of the Bamyan Buddhas. From there we went to Mazar-e-Sharif and saw its famous mosque."

Apart from the intrepid Britons, a party of Turkish tourists was also in the country last week. They travelled overland through Iran and entered Afghanistan at the border city of Islam Qila in Herat province.

"Afghans are so hospitable and they respected us a lot. We saw Herat and its historical monuments. We also saw Kandahar, Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif. The purpose of our trip was to meet our Muslim brothers and get to know them," said one of the travellers.

Dr Hisamuddin Humrah, chairman of the Afghan tourism authorities, revealed that so far this year 75 registered tourists have visited Afghanistan from Turkey, Switzerland, Japan, Iran, Pakistan and England. "When a foreigner wants to come to Afghanistan they inform us and we prepare visas and tickets as well as transport and accommodation. We also provide translators, who can speak the local languages fluently, and a guide," he said.

Humrah told IWPR that visitors are most interested in seeing the ancient walled city of Kandahar with its pilgrim centre, 5,000-year-old Balkh, the Chakari minaret and Balahisar Fort in Kabul, the grave of Sofi poet Khwaja Abdullah Ansari in Herat, and the remains of the Bamyan Buddhas.

Ahmad Asadzai owns the Marvellous Guest House, situated opposite the Pakistan embassy in Kabul. "Tourists are the future of Afghanistan," he said.

"When they return home they will tell their countrymen about the peace and security in Afghanistan, which will attract more people here - and earn us more foreign currency."

Abdul Baseer is a Kabul-based freelance reporter