Afghanistan waits for tourists
KABUL, Afghanistan — In the 1960s and 1970s, Afghanistan was part of the hippie trail, a magnet for stoned backpackers seeking nirvana. Well-heeled tourists also came to visit. Afghanistan's rugged terrain was ideal for mountaineering expeditions and hunting trips, and rich collectors could stock up on antiques and fine carpets.
Then came the Soviet invasion and its long occupation and war against guerillas, followed by the grim rule of the Taliban and, in 2001, the U.S. invasion following the September 11 terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.
Three years after an American-led coalition ousted the Taliban regime, the State Department still warns U.S. citizens against visiting Afghanistan. A low-level insurgency continues on the border with Pakistan, and rival warlords occasionally clash. Al Qaeda's chief, Osama bin Laden, remains at large, believed to be somewhere in the region.
Still, adventurous tourists are returning to this wild and exotic landscape.
It is not a vacation spot for the fainthearted.
Charles Clapham recently drove to Afghanistan from Bristol, England, in a 1961 Land Rover. After crossing Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India, he headed north to Afghanistan, planning to drive back to Europe through the former Soviet Union.
He stopped for a few days at a guest house in Kabul and spent a few days cycling around the capital. Contacted later by e-mail in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where he was waiting for a visa to Uzbekistan, Mr. Clapham said he encountered no problems crossing the Torkham border post between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but saw few signs of other solo motorists on the same route.
According to the border register, "mine was the fourth foreign vehicle to cross the Torkham border this year," he said.
Hessamuddin Hamrah, president of the Afghan Tourism Organization, is confident that foreign visitors will come back. But since the fall of the Taliban, his agency has hosted only 35 tour groups, comprising 247 individuals from around the globe, mostly from Western Europe and Japan.
"We hope a lot of tourists will come," he said, "because it's really important to us for economic revival."
Admittedly, Afghanistan's reputation as a haven for terrorists — and as one of the most heavily mined places on the planet — has been a poor advertisement for tourism.
"The news they hear from Afghanistan is bad," Mr. Hamrah said. "But the security in Afghanistan now is not bad. ... We send groups out, they go there and come back very happy."
Lonely Planet, the bible of budget travelers, published a section on Afghanistan in the latest edition of its Central Asia guidebook — previous editions said simply: "Don't Go!" Other guidebooks plan to include information and advice about the country.
Haji Sefat Mir remembers the golden age of Afghanistan as a tourist destination. He recalls a day in 1968 when he worked as a guide for a wealthy European hunter, who dropped two wild rams with one shot at 150 yards.
They were in the Wakhan Corridor, a mountainous sliver of land in northeastern Afghanistan that extends to the border with China. His client, a member of the Rothschild banking family, was stalking the Marco Polo sheep, a sought-after trophy for big-game hunters. He was pleased with his day and gave his guide a watch and several hundred dollars.
Mr. Sefat Mir still has an outdoorsman's robust physique, but he last led a hunting expedition in 1978, a year before the Soviet invasion began two decades of ruinous war. During the Soviet-Afghan conflict, Mr. Sefat Mir fought with the mujahideen under the late, legendary Tadjik guerilla commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. With a tenuous peace taking hold in Afghanistan, he is hoping the government will resume the big-game hunts.
"Maybe next year," he said.
Entrepreneurs are also counting on a revival of Afghan tourism.
Volodymyr Yakovliev, general director of Mandryk & Co., a company based in Kiev, organizes "extreme tours" for newly wealthy Ukrainians. He recently visited the Afghan Tourism Organization to get approval for an expedition to Kandahar, a former Taliban stronghold.
"These are people who are adrenaline addicts," he said of his clients. "They love the thrill of danger."
Mr. Yakovliev's next tour group is scheduled for early January — not the most hospitable time of year.
"It's mostly businessmen," he said. "They've already been on the beach a bunch of times, in Bulgaria or Turkey or wherever, and it's not interesting to them anymore."
For some of Mr. Yakovliev's clients, it's not their first trip to Afghanistan. Others are veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war, now returning for a nostalgic trip. Mr. Yakovliev said there had been a Soviet headquarters in Kandahar, "so we know the place very well."
Mr. Yakovliev, sporting impressive sideburns and a fedora, said Afghans harbor no ill will toward Ukrainians, despite the wartime experience.
"We're brothers, in the sense that we were occupied by one and the same country — Bolshevik Russia," he said. "As soon as I explain that to Afghans, they're my best friends."
Expatriates now working in Afghanistan visit weekend getaway spots. Bamiyan, the site of monumental Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban, is a favorite.
The Panjshir Valley, Mr. Massoud's base during the Soviet-Afghan war, is just a few hours' drive from Kabul.
Najibullah Rassa, a radio and television newscaster and native of the Panjshir, said the region's spectacular scenery makes it ideal for tourism.
"It's the best place for tourism in Afghanistan because it's close to Kabul," he said. "We have every kind of hunting, some very nice places to rest. And on the top of the mountains, we have natural streams and lakes."
But the region also has poor roads and no electricity.
"If we had an electrical terminal, we could build mountain cabins," Mr. Rassa said hopefully.
Encouraging tourists to return may not be as simple as running power lines. Continuing violence deters tourists — particularly after recent attacks aimed specifically at foreigners.
Shortly after the Oct. 9 presidential elections in Afghanistan, a suicide bomber hit Chicken Street, Kabul's main tourist thoroughfare. A young American woman and an Afghan girl were killed along with the attacker.
More recently, kidnappers from a group called the Jaish-e-Muslimeen, or Army of Muslims, claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of three U.N. workers in a residential district of Kabul. The hostages were released on Tuesday.
Still, Mr. Sefat Mir hopes the big-game hunters will return. That, of course, may alarm conservationists: The rare sheep are already threatened by poachers.
But if the government gives the go-ahead, Mr. Sefat Mir could be leading expeditions as early as next year. The license fee?
"Now, if the hunters come, they should pay $20,000," Mr. Sefat Mir said.