Afghanistan welcomes tourists albeit with caution

Published on : Saturday, August 6, 2016

AfghanistanThe police were in for a huge surprise when they stopped a van that was travelling across central Afghanistan to the western city of Herat, it was full of Western tourists.

The visitors’ presence in one of the world’s most dangerous countries made headlines on Thursday after their vehicle, now under police escort, was caught in a suspected Taliban ambush.

But their trip across a stretch of country widely seen to be risky underlined the dangers such travellers face, and the difficulty Afghanistan’s stretched police force has in protecting them.

In the van, which was badly burned in the attack, were six Britons, two Americans and a German, part of a steady trickle of visitors lured by the stunning beauty of the landscapes and landmarks and, in some cases, by the thrill of danger.

In this instance, the group had set out from Bamiyan, once home to giant Buddha statues carved into the cliffs until they were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

They were driving west to Herat, an ancient city near the Iranian border renowned for its citadel and blue-tiled mosque.

The Afghan government welcomes travellers to areas considered safe, where Taliban militants, seeking to topple the government and return to power, are not deemed a threat.
Even then visitors are encouraged to fly, rather than drive between destinations whenever possible, said Zardasht Shams, deputy minister of Information and Culture.

“The (convoy) in Herat was not coordinated with us,” he said, adding that many tourists visited the country last year without incident. “We do encourage tourists to come and visit Afghanistan, but after checking with us first.”

After an Indian woman was kidnapped from downtown Kabul in June, officials sparked controversy by telling expatriate residents to hire guards or use police escorts.

Bamiyan, which also boasts Afghanistan’s first national park, is seen as relatively secure, the Interior ministry official said.

“The main issue over the last few years has been driving between cities,” said James Willcox, a founder of British-based Untamed Borders.

The company offers hiking in the remote Wakhan Corridor in the northeast, horse trekking and even heli-skiing in the rugged Afghan mountains.

But the last time it offered the driving route to Herat was in 2009.

“When we first started, we could drive from Kabul to Herat along the central route … but as time’s gone on, security has gotten worse between cities,” Willcox said.

The handful of operators who bring international tourists to Afghanistan say increasing violence has led them to curtail some travel in recent months.

Marc Leaderman, head of group tours at Wild Frontiers, another British firm, said his company had no plans to bring any visitors this year.

Foreign tour operators deny that they cater to thrill-seekers.

“We’re not about taking people to dangerous places but rather introducing them to an amazing country,” said Leaderman.

Wild Frontiers’ clients in Afghanistan have ranged from people in their 20s to those in their 80s, and included a British military history buff and another individual who had first visited the country as a hippie in the 1960s.

“Everyone seems to have their own reason for coming to Afghanistan,” said Leaderman, who acknowledged the trips were usually against the advice of the British Embassy.


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