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

Tourists Trickle Back to Bamian

It may not be the first place that springs to mind for a vacation, but half a century after visitors started coming here, tourism in Bamian is slowly picking up.
By Mohammad Jawad

Forty-six years ago, the first recorded package group of European tourists arrived in Afghanistan on horseback. They opened up a trail that by 1974 was bringing 120,000 visitors into the country each year.

Income from tourism that year came to 35 million US dollars - a massive sum for those days - but things are much tougher now for the trade.

Since the last available official figures, nearly three decades of war, the fearsome reputation of the mujahedin, the fundamentalist Taleban and continuing conflict involving western troops have offered little to encourage tourists.

But now, tourists are starting to arrive in a slow trickle, and officials say they hope to encourage more, although no one is expecting the flow to turn into a flood any time soon.

Ironically, one action by the Taleban regime which generated worldwide outrage may have helped revive interest in Bamian.

In March 2001, the Taleban used tanks and explosives to destroy two colossal 2,000-year-old Buddhas. International efforts to save the statues and anger at the demolition generated immense publicity. Since then, the huge niches where the statues once stood have become a tourist attraction.

Bamian lies in the central highlands of Afghanistan, only 240 kilometres from Kabul. But the tortuous roads make it an eight-hour car trip, a problem which officials in the tourism ministry hope to address.

At present between 50 and 60 foreigners and 400 to 500 Afghans a month brave the route to visit the towering empty niches in the cliff face from where the Buddhas looked over the valley for centuries.

Bamian is regarded as one of Afghanistan’s safer regions, away from the Taleban insurgency in the south and southeast. Appearances can, however, be deceptive. Rocket attacks on part of the route are not unknown.

And landmines remain an ever-present danger, although their presence is also a source of income for guides who charge 40 dollars an afternoon to shepherd tourists around them.

That bloodshed is not a recent phenomenon is evident in the name of one of the province's other attractions – the City of Screams or Shahr-e-Ghulghula whose inhabitants were reputedly massacred by Chingiz Khan’s Mongols.

Other sites include the 2,000-year-old ruins of the Red City, Shahr-e-Zuhak, seated high on a mountain promontory a mere 17 kilometres from Bamian – which means a bumpy road trip of over an hour.

Seventy kilometres to the northwest, the peaceful beauty of the cascading lakes at Band-e-Amir has seduced the few tourists prepared to make the trip.

French tourist, Michael Asser, 26, told IWPR that Band-e-Amir was one of the most beautiful spots he had ever visited – at the end of one of the worst roads.

“I had seen such a sight only in Bolivia. When I saw Band-e-Amir, I thought I was in Bolivia," he said. "I hope to die in a place like Band-e-Amir.”

But he added, “The roads are in very bad condition, and there are no transport facilities for tourists.”

Government officials say they are doing what they can. The information, culture and tourism ministry has asked the public works department to restore the road to Bamian and to build a restaurant and guesthouse at Band-e-Amir.

Other foreign tourists find the facilities in Bamian somewhat wanting. Asser's criticism of the roads - valid for most of the country - was echoed by others who also condemned the standard of hotel accommodation on offer in Bamian.

“There aren’t cars for tourists and there are no good facilities for tourists in the hotels,” said Robyn Langford, a British national who has lived in Afghanistan for eight years and who, along with eight colleagues, was visiting the Buddha niches.

The ministry acknowledges difficulties but points out that in the past six months, it has opened seven tourist centres across the country. It has also produced some guidebooks and brochures in English, German, French and Dari and hired staff for hotels in each of the seven centres.

Bamian has four hotels, three private and one government-run. Most tourists prefer to stay in the latter, which charges around 40 dollars a night including meals. Located on a hill opposite the Buddhas’ cliff-face, it has 28 twin-bed rooms and generator-powered electricity for part of the evening.

Commenting on the complaints from tourists, deputy hotel manager Haji Mohammad said, “We don’t have the authority to buy even a box of matches or a glass. We have to ask the relevant officials in Kabul for everything we need.”

Deputy minister Nasrullah Stanekzai refused to offer figures or detailed plans for how the government planned to revive the tourism industry, saying, "We cannot reveal our budget; we can only tell this to parliament."

But in general terms, he said, a new town was planned for Bamian, about five km away in the Mullah Ghulam desert, to keep the old town unspoiled.

Bamian city, the capital of a province with about 600,000 residents, has no mains electricity or municipal water system, paved roads or pavements. To get here from Kabul means either travelling in a crowded communal taxi, at about 600 afghanis a person (about 12 dollars) or hiring a private car for 4,000 afghanis (80 dollars) for up to six people to travel one-way.

During his visit, Asser criticised western media for portraying Afghanistan as a nation of violent terrorists.

"Now that I have come here, I see that all those things… are not true. Afghanistan is a nice country and its people are very friendly," he said.

He was speaking shortly before the bodies of two Japanese tourists were discovered in Kandahar province and a British lorry driver was kidnapped and killed. Meanwhile, fighting between police, troops and Taleban militants continues to claim lives on a daily basis.

Geoff Hann, who runs the British company Hinterland Travel, said security was improving but he hired local vehicles to travel around in, so as "to keep a low profile". In conflict areas like Kandahar, visits were "in and out", he added.

"Afghanistan has been off the map for a long time. I did not come here from 1980 to 2001 and there are still problems including food and the standard of sanitation," said Hann.

Both the British Foreign Office and the US Department of State advise against travel to Afghanistan. But some westerners still insist on making the trip.

"It makes it impossible to get insurance, but my tourists are willing to take the chance," said Hann, adding that his latest group of ten tourists – from Britain, Canada and Australia - had been given strict instructions on how to behave, how women should dress, and about not going out at night.

Ravina Pana, who had travelled from the US with her husband and children, had nothing but praise for Band-e-Amir, "I have never seen a scene as nice in any part of the world."

Pana was optimistic that facilities would improve.

“The hotel has warm water as well as electricity during [some] of the nights. There might have not been all these facilities last year and it will hopefully be much better next year,” she said.

Hann agreed, saying, "Despite the problems, more and more people are now thinking that you can come to Afghanistan."

Mohammad Jawad Sharifzada is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.