Clay-brick kilns sit unused in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Can Tourism Return to Afghanistan?

July 07, 2009 05:00 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
Officials in Afghanistan's Bamiyan valley are attempting to revive tourism, but how might the U.S. troop surge impact efforts to draw travelers?

A Haven in War's Shadow

Casting aside concerns over vicious fighting in the south, eager tour guides and restaurant owners are focused on hospitality in the center of the Bamiyan valley. Their efforts could entice tourists seeking adventure and history, and may help normalize life in the war-torn country.

According to Heidi Vogt of the Associated Press, there are many challenges involved with drawing people to the "cliff caverns" and crumbling ancient cities of Bamiyan, including land mines and sketchy roadways. But international donors see potential: the Geneva-based Aga Khan Development Network is funding a $1.2 million ecotourism program in Bamiyan, and New Zealand and Japan are also donors. Additionally, a 13-mile race is being held in September, which U.N. protected areas expert Andrew Scanlon calls "the world's most beautiful half marathon."
One particularly enticing attraction in Bamiyan is Band-e Amir, a valley that the BBC's Alastair Leithead likens to the Grand Canyon, but "flooded with deep sapphire lakes." Band-e Amir is not easy to get to, requiring an eight-hour trek on dirt roads. And while the views are astounding, there are not many people to be seen. Leithead says the "deteriorating security situation in the surrounding provinces" has deterred visitors and that only funding can fix things. Unfortunately, most aid is given to Afghanistan's danger zones.

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Background: Troop surge

Earlier this month, U.S. Marines entered southern Afghanistan's Taliban-held areas in the "biggest American military operation" in the area since 2001, reports the AP.

But the Marines' motives are complex: They hope to ease tension with locals in "a region where foreigners are viewed with suspicion." Military spokesman Capt. Bill Pelletier told the AP that American troops are not concerned with the Taliban. "We are focused on the people," Pelletier explained. "It is important to engage with the key leaders, hear what they need most and what are their priorities."

Although the recent troop surge might deter some travelers, the efforts of U.S. Marines to win over residents of Afghan villages could result in an eventual upswing for both tourism and daily life.

A more pressing "immediate goal" of the surge, according to Jason Straziuso, writing for the AP, "is to clear away insurgents before the nation's Aug. 20 presidential election." Before the elections, 21,000 more American troops will be deployed to Afghanistan. By the end of this year, 68,000 U.S. forces are expected to be there, AP reports.

Related Topic: Afghanistan's "hippie trail" past

In a 2003 article for Outside Magazine, Patrick Symmes discussed the former "luminous mystery" that drew backpacking travelers to Afghanistan in the 1960s. "Kabul was the antique capital of a romantic nation," and a roadway dubbed "Chicken Street," full of eateries and hotels, "was a ghetto of global hippies and seekers," Symmes wrote. As strange as it may sound now, to a generation of Americans who see Afghanistan as a violent war zone, the entrancing country was once a "mellow" place, according to Symmes.

In a review of "A Season in Heaven: True Tales from the Road to Kathmandu" by David Tomory, travel writer Rolf Potts commented on the prevalence of Western travelers in the more "exotic countries" like Iran and Afghanistan in the 1960s. Potts noted that in Kabul, homesick Western travelers could dine on "schnitzel and potato salad" at Siggi's Restaurant.

Reference: Conflict in Afghanistan

FindingDulcinea's Web Guide to the Conflict in Afghanistan outlines the origins of the conflict, aspects of the modern-day conflict and its impacts on the country's government and people.

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