Bamiyan, AFGHANISTAN – Call him forward thinking, but Sanjeev Gupta thinks it’s about time war-torn Afghanistan had a tourism industry.
Gupta, a regional program manager for a non-governmental organization called the Aga Khan Foundation, says that while some parts of Afghanistan remain too volatile to visit, Bamiyan, the province in which he works, is blessed with relative peace – and an abundance of cultural, historical and natural treasures capable of luring travelers from all around the world.
“Bamiyan has a lot of tourist potential,” Gupta said. “We need to correct the perception of Afghanistan. The whole country is not dangerous.”
To promote the industry, the Aga Khan Foundation has created the Bamiyan Ecotourism Project – a three-year program that will develop a tourism infrastructure, train guides, cooks and hoteliers, and raise awareness of the region’s attractions.
Nevertheless, the task of establishing a tourism industry in Afghanistan, even in a relatively safe province like this one, is formidable. Most western governments’ advisories strongly discourage non-essential travel to the country. Of the two roads that link the city to Kabul, one travels through territory controlled by the Taliban and the other experienced two roadside bombings in the past month. The journey takes 10 hours, over a dirt road that resembles the surface of an asteroid. There are no commercial flights to the province.
But Gupta is thinking long-term with the Bamiyan Ecotourism Project. So long-term that he imagines a future Bamiyan with an international airstrip. “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, tourism here is not without precedent. Bamiyan has been on travel itineraries since it was a major caravanserai of the Silk Road and once hosted famous wanderers like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. More recently, Laura Bush paid a visit in June. Bamiyan’s towering statues of the Buddha, carved into a sandstone cliff 1,500 years ago – a century before the birth of Islam – attracted foreign tourists up until the Soviet invasion in 1979. Few have traveled here in the last 30 years of war, and in 2001 the Taliban destroyed the Buddhist landmarks with rockets and tanks.
Now, as this province emerges as one of the success stories of post-Taliban Afghanistan, the people want their history back. Habiba Sarabi, the governor of Bamiyan and the only female governor in Afghanistan, says she is tired of seeing her province lumped in with the negative news from the rest of the country.
“If there is news about security in Afghanistan, then it affects Bamiyan,” Sarabi said. The governor hopes that as people become aware of the region’s safety, tourism will become a lucrative industry for her province. “It can bring a lot of income and a lot of change to people’s lives,” she said. The governor is still cautious, however. “We want to avoid mass tourism in Bamiyan,” she said. “Everything should be taken care of.”
Sarabi says she wants at least one of the Buddha statues to be rebuilt, a difficult project which several organizations have offered to fund, but is still awaiting approval from the Ministry of Culture in Kabul. “Unfortunately, they haven’t made a decision,” Sarabi said.
But according to Abdul Razak, sitting in the empty restaurant of his 18-room Roof of Bamiyan Hotel, tourism has a long way to come here. “The most important thing for tourists is peace,” he said. “If (the Bamiyan Ecotourism Project) can bring peace, then the tourists will come. If not, everything is for nothing.”
Razak said that the presence of UN and large-budget NGO offices have inflated the cost of rent in Bamiyan. As a result, he has to charge $40 - $60 per night for one of his rooms – fine for the vacationing expatriates from Kabul, but a higher price than he would use to target genuine travelers, often on smaller budgets.
“This is not a tourist price,” he said. “This is a crazy price. If more guests come, I will put the price down to $10.”
Down the hill from the Roof of Bamiyan is the Silk Road Hotel, which charges $80 - $100 for a room, but boasts Bamiyan’s first and only sushi bar.
Afghanistan’s recent instability has taken its toll on the nascent tourism industry here. The recent bombing outside the Indian embassy in Kabul and the January attack on the capital’s only five-star hotel have hurt business, says André Mann, founder of the Great Game Travel Company, which offers customized adventure travel expeditions around Afghanistan.
“Things turned to the worse, which we didn’t expect,” he said.
Mann said his company’s clientele are well-traveled, well-to-do Europeans and Americans intent on visiting Afghanistan. “We try to make it safer for them,” he said. While his business has suffered in 2008, in 2007 he organized trips for 200 travelers, and he hopes 2009 will be even better. “Afghanistan is absolutely unique,” he said. “It’s waiting to be discovered. It just needs some infrastructure.”
The decision to travel to Afghanistan was a rewarding one for Pei-Yin Lew, a 22-year old Australian medical student enjoying a trip to Bamiyan’s spring-fed Band-i-Amir lakes one recent Sunday.
“One of the main reasons I wanted to come to Afghanistan was to see these lakes,” she said, standing above a string of six brilliant blue lagoons set in the middle of barren sandstone badlands. “It’s truly beautiful here.”
When Lew arrived at the Afghan border after traveling for a month in neighboring Iran, she had a copy of the brand new Lonely Planet for Afghanistan and a profile on CouchSurfing.com, an online network of people around the world willing to host travelers in their towns. Travel websites, family and friends had urged her not to go to Afghanistan, but she’s glad she did.
“As a girl, traveling alone, you don’t know how people are going to react to that,” Lew said. “But it’s all about perception. Some will say it’s safe, some will say it’s not, but no one really knows.”