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AsiaOne » Afghan province hopes war can be tourism draw

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AFP
Wed, Jun 01, 2011

By Katherine Haddon

Asia One

BAZARAK, Afghanistan - A HOLIDAY in Afghanistan? It may not sound like an enticing prospect, but one province hopes that its history of warfare can help pull tourists in rather than put them off.

Panjshir, around 130 kilometres (80 miles) northeast of the capital Kabul, is dominated by the snow-capped mountains of the Hindu Kush, plunging valleys and a fast-flowing river which snakes through the middle.

It is also one of Afghanistan's most peaceful areas. Panjshiris, mainly ethnic Tajiks, pride themselves on having kept out the Taliban and repelled the Soviet Union after its 1979 invasion.

US and Afghan officials hope this history and natural beauty could bring visitors to Panjshir and boost its economy as it makes the transition to Afghan security control from July, amid fears that foreign aid could plunge.

"This is not going to be Afghan Disneyland, this is not going to be Sandals resort Jamaica, this is Panjshir and we need to develop a style of tourism which is unique to Panjshir," said Morgan Keay, a tourism specialist at USAID, the US government's aid agency, who is working in the area.

People involved acknowledge there is a long way to go before most foreigners can be persuaded that Panjshir is safe enough for them. "For any clients who contact us, this is the first question - is Afghanistan safe?" said Muqim Jamshady, CEO of Kabul-based travel company Afghan Logistics and Tours. "Of course it's very hard to convince clients."

Panjshir was the home of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the charismatic French-speaking anti-Taliban commander often credited with forcing out the Soviets but who was assassinated two days before the September 11, 2001 attacks.

His tomb in the province - surrounded by abandoned, rusting Soviet tanks and trucks - is being developed into a $10 million tourist attraction complete with mosque, library and conference centre.

Officials expect Massoud's legacy to act as a focal point for tourism, along with adventure activities such as mountain trekking and kayaking. Mohammad Sorab Marazi, an ex-mujahedeen fighter who is now governor of the province's Dara district, said: "As Panjshir is one of the resistance centres against the Soviets and Al-Qaeda, everyone in the world knows about it... that's why people should come here and see what type of place it is."

Asked whether he would be happy to see Russian tourists coming to the area to explore historic battlefields, he added: "There will be no problem for the Russians coming to Afghanistan. Let them see the graves."

However, Panjshir has a long way to go before it develops a tourist industry. It has only two primitive guesthouses, no proper restaurants and certainly no visitor centres.

Some Kabul residents travel to the area for weekend picnics, but virtually no foreign tourists currently come to Panjshir.

Even assuming more people can be persuaded to visit, officials say careful preparations would be needed to ensure that locals are ready for them, perhaps through mullahs.

US officials raised the prospect of local men being offended by the sight of Western men kayaking down the river as women collect water from the banks. Potential investors who spoke at a recent Panjshir tourism conference organised by the US-led Provincial Reconstruction Team also raised practical concerns such as Afghanistan's lack of long-term leases for hoteliers.

Provincial leaders, though, are hungry for the revenue which tourism could bring.

"Tourists are not coming here to take things from us or insult our religion but to breathe the fresh air in the province," Abdul Rahman Kabiri, deputy governor of Panjshir, told the conference.

"Tourists will play an important part in the development of this country." Panjshir will be among the first wave of places in Afghanistan to pass from foreign to local security control from July.

US officials hope that, as their mission here winds down, industries such as tourism can grow enough to help make up for a likely shrinkage of funding from their government and other sources in future.

However, they acknowledge that the success or failure of that idea turns on whether there is peace in Afghanistan after the international troop drawdown, or still more war.

http://news.asiaone.com/news/AsiaOne%252BNews/World/Story/A1Story20110601-281842.html

AFP » Afghanistan's Stunning Lakes Thirst For Tourism

BAND-E-AMIR, Afghanistan (AFP) – During Afghanistan's 1960s hippy trail heyday, Band-e-Amir's six mineral-rich lakes and pink cliffs were the country's holiday paradise, visited by tens of thousands of domestic and foreign tourists every summer. Swan-shaped pedal boats bob in the sapphire-blue lakes of Band-e-Amir as tradesmen peddle their wares on the shore. Then, as if from nowhere, two US Black Hawks roar low over the water. Welcome to tourism Afghan-style, in one of the war-torn country's few national parks, about 80 kilometres (42 miles) from the town of Bamiyan where the Taliban destroyed the world's tallest Buddha statues in 2001. "Before the war," sighed Shah Is'haq, a 68-year-old jewellery salesmen perched on the bank of the placid waters, "thousands of foreigners were coming here. The life, back then, was very good." "Those days are now gone," said Is'haq, mourning Afghanistan's woes from the 1979-89 Soviet occupation, to the ensuing civil war, the 1996-2001 Islamist Taliban regime and now the US-led fight against Taliban insurgents. The roads around the lakes were heavily mined by local militias and the Taliban in the 1990s, and only a dirt track is safe. The journey from Kabul takes a bone-shaking 12 hours, and passes through some areas where attacks have taken place. But the brightly coloured pedalos and trinket sellers at the lakes -dubbed AFG's Grand Canyon - hint at growing efforts to bring back the golden tourist years despite the violence.


In Bamiyan city, Italian tourist Alessandro Califano said he was aware of the security problems in Afghanistan but had not faced any difficulties himself. "I think it is a wonderful place," Califano, a museum curator in his native Rome, said at a hotel overlooking the niches in a huge sandstone cliff that once housed the two 1,500-year-old Buddha statues. "Even if the Buddhas have been blown into the air, it has a certain aura. The natural setting is simply fabulous," he said. "The only threat I faced here was finding a scorpion in the bath," Califano said, smiling. Otherwise it was "safe and pleasant". Despite the destruction of the statues in March 2001, officials and residents argue that Bamiyan province can still claw back lucrative tourism. The remains of the statues were declared a UN World Heritage Site in 2003, while the Afghan government has submitted the lakes for recognition on the same list. Bamiyan city opened a rudimentary tourist centre in late October, backed by the New Zealand government which has a small military contingent there, and is now planning a map of key sites and an institute to train hotel workers. "We are working on a project for Bamiyan tourism," said Habiba Sorabi, the provincial governor and the only woman to hold such a position in Afghanistan. With the population mainly comprising Shi'ite Muslim ethnic Hazaras who loathe the Taliban, Bamiyan is a relative oasis of peace in Afghanistan. This year for example, more than 1,000 "foreigners" visited the scenic valley and Band-e-Amir, the governor said over green tea in her hilltop office. But getting central government funds to pave the bumpy road through green valleys and barren mountains from Kabul is a priority for getting tourists to the area, Sorabi said. "So let's hope for the future," she said.


In Kabul, officials share the same hopes but admit that reviving tourism could be tough, with Afghanistan's infrastructure still in ruins and security suffering from the worsening Taliban insurgency. Nearly 70,000 NATO and US-led troops are still in Afghanistan, and US president-elect Barack Obama has said that he plans to begin pulling US troops out of Iraq to switch the military focus to the Central Asian nation. Under its five-year national development blueprint, the Afghan government says it plans to promote tourism and encourage private investment in the industry. "We have the plans in front of us," Deputy Information, Culture and Tourism Minister Ghulam Nabi Farhai said in Kabul. "At this time the biggest challenge ahead is security." He added: "If we have security, if we have good roads & hotels, AFG with its beautiful landscape,its pleasant climate and rich culture and history will become a perfect place for tourists." Muqeem Jamshedi, the owner of Afghan Logistics and Tours, one of the few tourism firms established in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban, says Bamiyan and the lakes should be on any tourist's wish-list. "Bamiyan and Band-e-Amir are the must-go places," said Jamshedi. More than 150 "foreign tourists" have visited the valley this year through his company, which provides transport, hotel and security services, he added. A former journalist, Jamshedi set up the company months after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, with high hopes that tourists would soon flood his country. But so far, he said, his dreams have yet to come true. "Tourists can't bring security, it's the security which brings the tourists. I hope for that security," he said.

The Times » Asia Article about Tourism in Afghanistan Times British

The Times - September 23, 2006

Money changers are keen to offer their services (DOUG MCKINLAY)

YOU HAVE to be nuts to visit Afghanistan as a tourist right now. There’s all-out war in the south, suicide bombers are targeting Kabul, landmines and cluster bombs litter the countryside, and Westerners are hated. True?

Well, somewhat. Certainly it is not the first holiday destination that jumps to mind for most people. There are no beaches, theme parks or casinos, proper hotels are thin on the ground and, in terms of infrastructure, there isn’t a lot. Why go then? Simple. This is an endlessly fascinating country that is living and creating a history like no other place on the planet.

One of the first things to understand is that Afghanistan is a divided country. The southern provinces are definitely a no-go zone. Nato forces are neck-deep in a conflict that seems set to get worse. When this will change is anybody’s guess. However, in the north, things are a bit different. Notwithstanding two recent suicide bombings in Kabul, most of the northern provinces are experiencing relative calm. It’s into this environment that I set out. My goal: to gain an understanding of what Afghanistan is all about and to see what is drawing a small but hardcore group of tourists to this war-torn central Asian country.

First stop Kabul. The city sits in a valley amid dun- coloured hills: a disintegrating medieval perimeter wall can be seen poking between the mud-brick houses that cover them. The noon-time traffic is thick, congested almost to the point of standstill. Kabul’s architecture is a mix of slapped together one-storey buildings, 1970s low-rises and post-Taleban steel and glass structures that look as if they have been lifted from the streets of Shanghai. However, I am on my way to the Serena Hotel, Kabul’s only five-star bolt hole.

Opened in November 2005 after an extensive refurbishment programme, the hotel project is funded by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) in partnership with the World Bank, Norway’s Norfund and the Netherlands Development Finance Company.

Why open a five-star hotel in one of the most unpredictable cities in the world? “Part of the reason was to help develop the local economy and change the image of Afghanistan,” says Chris Newbury, the Serena’s general manager. “We provide jobs for local people. We train them in the industry and even if they leave us to start their own hotel or guesthouse, hopefully the training they receive here will help improve the country’s overall hotel industry.”

The Serena is not the only project AKDN is involved with in Afghanistan. It is the principal backer of the telecommunications company, Roshan, which provides affordable mobile telephone and internet service to people all over the country. It also provides funding for cultural programmes that are working to restore many of Kabul’s historic buildings and sites, principally the Babur Gardens, the Old Town, and the Timur Shah Mausoleum.

Hotels aside, I want to know more about Kabul itself and the surrounding country; one of the best ways to get a finger on the pulse of any city is to visit the markets.

Kabul is full of markets, most of them unofficial. Any bare patch of ground is suitable for a vendor to sell a few melons or some dates. Walking among these busy streets is like strolling through the pages of National Geographic magazine. Every face is a portrait, every portrait tells a story, every story an epic.

The few Western tourists who make it to Kabul are often warned off from visiting the markets because they’re too unpredictable. Granted, the hustle and bustle might be a bit much for some, but I am treated with nothing more menacing than a little over- curiosity and on a number of occasions even get invited to people’s homes for tea.

Getting around outside the city can be tricky. Independent-minded travellers can do it by public transport, but this is time-consuming and erratic at best, and dangerous at worst. However there are a few private organisations that offer transport and tours around the country. One Kabul-based company is Afghan Logistics. This family-owned business, run by 27- year-old Muqim Jamshady , was more used to acting as fixers for foreign journalists until the first tourists — three people from the UK — turned up in 2003.

“We were very happy,” says Muqim. “Even the Afghan Government was happy. It’s what we want, especially people of my generation. We just want the war to stop. I even hate the word war.” Although Afghan Logistics is not the cheapest (about £53 to £80 a day) for travel, it is among the most knowledgeable and experienced.

CNN Traveller » Built to last

March 2008 Posted in Inside Asia

A charitable foundation led by a former British diplomat is hoping to improve Afghanistan’s prospects through arts and crafts. Kate Brothers reports from Kabul......Click Here to Read More

Jessica Wanke » Letter From Afghanistan

Section: Special Report; Page Number:30

Economic Times Mumbai - Aug 18, 2006

The “pure” tourist has still to make significant numbers But he has started coming. In this interview with Muqim Jamshady, CEO of Afghan Logistics and Tours Pvt Ltd, the potential Indian traveler gets a chance to learn why Afghanistan has always had such a powerful hold on us. It’s the people and the culture and the host of things we have in common.

In the five years your company has been in operation, how long have you been taking tour groups and individuals around?

In 2001 and 2002 Afghanistan was not quite ready for tourism. Therefore we brought our first tour group only in 2003, from the UK. Ever since, each year we have about two or three big parties ranging in size from from 8 to 13 people, overall about 30 to 40 individuals.

How many people have you dealt with so far?

About 140 “pure tourists” since 2003; above and beyond that, many NGO workers, journalists and company workers.>

Is it mostly groups or individuals? Pre-designed packages or customized? For businessman who want a break or for people who come to Afghanistan purely as tourists?

Corresponding with the different customers we have been serving, we have had different requirements. There have been individual and groups traveling, we have provided them with either pre-designed or custom-made packages. Most tourists would take our pre-designed routes, while journalists and the like have more specific and custom-made demands.

In all the time you have operated, have you ever has a mishap in terms of "collateral damage".

Absolutely NOT. We follow closely the recommendations of ANSO (Afghan National Security Organization) and do not take people to unsafe areas, which mainly constitute the southern provinces. We have not once had a security situation of any type or even a close call of any nature, either.

On a visit to Afghanistan in May 2005, people went out of the way to assure us that Indians were safe. After the murder of the Border Roads engineer K Suryanarayana by Taliban militants in April, does that perception still stand?

The people of Afghanistan respect Indians and the Indian government because of their past support for the anti-Talib resistance. Just like all foreigners are a tentative target of insurgents who are opposed to development, Indians are not more or less exposed. The recent tragic case does not highlight that Indians are specific target and does not reflect the general populations attitude against Indians. In fact, most feel a strong cultural affinity with the subcontinent.

Has the tourism business grown in the last few years?

It has grown each year steadily, but this year because of those protests in Kabul, and some problems in the south which was heavily covered in the Western media, the tourism business has slowed.

Do you think there is a market for Indian tourists? After all, we're not all that eager to rough it out!

Most of our business at the moment originates from Europe and USA. What we are trying to do is to open up the Asia-Pacific rim (including Australia, New Zealand and South Asia) to tourism in Afghanistan - this is an ongoing marketing effort.

Economic Times Mumbai » Growing The Tourist Market

By Don Duncan / MAZAR-I-SHARIF

TIME.COM - Thursday, Oct. 02, 2008

he lines between the Afghanistan at war and the Afghanistan at peace alter daily. Cities accessible by road today may only be reached by plane — or not at all — tomorrow. And so follow the boundaries of the nation's tiny tourism industry. The few foreign tourists who come to Afghanistan, estimated to number under a thousand yearly, need plenty of help to pull off their holidays safely. In cities like Kabul, Herat, Faizabad and Mazar-i-Sharif, a small legion of Afghans who spent the last seven years as translators and security aides are spinning their expertise at navigating this shifting landscape into a new business. Now, they are also tour guides.

The young sector is not exactly crowded. Two companies — Afghan Logistics and Tours and — run most of the tours in the country, drawing and redrawing the map — on a daily basis — of where travel is advisable and where it's not. "

Blair Kangley, a 56-year-old American, traveled with Afghan Logistics and Tours from Kabul to the Bamian valley, famous as the site of the once-towering Buddhas, blown up by the Taliban in 2001. While tour guide Mobin accompanied Kangley on what was planned to be a two-day tour, he was in continual contact with the head Kabul office, plugged into its own formal and informal information networks ranging from the Afghan army and police to U.S. and NATO intelligence personnel. After word reached Mubim that there was a "block" on what had been the only "safe road" back to Kabul, Kangley found himself hanging out in Bamian for three days more. "We eventually were prepared to take a U.N. flight out," he says. "The locals unblocked the road just in time and we left by car in an exciting all-night jaunt."

Indeed, Afghan Logistics and Tours regards itself more as a logistics company than a tourist outfit; tourism comprises only about 10% of its business. "But we hope to increase our tourism to between 60% and 70%," says Muqim Jamshady, the company's 28-year-old director who steers security intelligence to his team of driver/guides from his desk in Kabul, littered with over a dozen walkie-talkies and satellite phones. That increase will happen, Jamshady adds, "once Afghanistan gets more peaceful." He doesn't speculate exactly when that moment will arrive.

In the meantime, he and Mann continue to organize tours to sites like Bamian and Qala-i-Jangi, a 19th century fortress some 12 miles (20 km) outside Mazar and one of the sites of final resistance by the Taliban against the Northern Alliance and the U.S.-led forces in 2001. Today, the bullet holes along the walls of the fortress remain unplastered. Shoib Najafizada, Afghan Logistics and Tours' man in Mazar, leads visitors around the rusty remnants of tanks and heavy artillery that lie strewn around. Like other guides, Najafizada offers firsthand accounts of some of the key moments of the country's recent turbulence. He was present at the battle of Qala-i-Jangi, as a translator for the coalition forces, and today he deciphers the untouched graffiti scratched in Persian and Urdu into black scorched walls of the fortress: "Long Live the Taliban," or "In Memory of Mullah Mohammad Jan Akhond," a Pakistani fighter with the Taliban who died in the conflict.

Mann says much of his outfit's business is in visiting these historic sites of battle. But on some recent tours, he says, "It's not unusual for a Black Hawk or an Apache helicopter to fly over. And it is clear that [the conflict] I am describing is still going on." With security as fragile as it is in Afghanistan, there are no real relics there yet. "These battles we describe could be the future as they have been the past."

(Watch a video about Kabul's emerging skateboard culture.)

Find this article at: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1846464,00.html

Copyright 2008 Time Inc. All rights reserved.

Tourism in Afghanistan

Trekking through the Pansjir Valley

By Bob Ramsay; Photo Credits: Jean Marmoreo, 29 MAY 2008

Well, maybe. It’s awfully small, with good reason. Aside from the Taliban creating a war zone out of the southern half of a country the size of Manitoba with the population of Canada, there’s the small matter of some bad press.

Despite this (or for aficionados of danger, because of it), tourism is taking the first baby steps to legitimacy in one of the most beautiful and remote locations on earth. In fact, one tour operator has been taking small groups on guided tours for six years, beginning very soon after the Taliban were routed from the north.

Muqin Jamshady is the 30-something owner of Afghan Logistics and Tours, which started as a driving and cab service for the hundreds of UN and NGO staffers and journalists now working in Kabul.

His company is the first government-licensed tour operator to take foreigners on guided tours in the northern part of Afghanistan. They run 6-day, 10-day and 16-day standard tours and will customize any itinerary to suit its participants.

After a few basic security precautions, such as a local cell phone with emergency numbers pre-programmed in, plus a walkie-talkie, plus a GPS emergency-finder, we head out for one of the most beautiful drives on earth, through the Pansjir Valley. It is a two hour trip north of the Afghani capital of Kabul. At the valley’s peak is the breath-taking Anjuman Pass, where Alexander the Great drove his foot soldiers during the terrible winter of 325 BC. Today, the snow-capped mountains plunge steeply into the Pansjir River, with its bucolic woods and lush fields full of poppies and tanks.

Tanks? Yes, tanks. The charred remnants of Russian tanks destroyed by the Mujahadim in the late 70s still dot the landscape, often with grass growing from their turrets. There’s a huge disincentive to move them - the land around them is mined.

But they’re a reminder of just how exotic Afghanistan remains for anyone wanting to go there as a tourist. Then there’s the war against the Taliban, though this is centred in the south of Afghanistan, far from both Kabul and the Pansjir Valley.

All trips start in Kabul, and the easiest way to fly there is through Dubai, either on the government airline, Ariana, or the privately-owned Kam Air.

Muqin Jamshady is very aware that safety is the issue for anyone contemplating a trip to Afghanistan. So he provides armed guards and English-speaking guides on all trips. As he says: "We are always in touch with the local police and relevant security departments, and we always take our own security guards when we go outside of Kabul."

So how many people last year took one of his tours?

"Seventy to eighty." Were they happy ?

It seems so, and the upbeat testimonials range from Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet, to any number of hard-bitten media types who have seen it all, all over the world, and swear by him and his colleagues.

Afghan province hopes war can be tourism draw

media

AFP
Wed, Jun 01, 2011

By Katherine Haddon

BAZARAK, Afghanistan - A HOLIDAY in Afghanistan? It may not sound like an enticing prospect, but one province hopes that its history of warfare can help pull tourists in rather than put them off.

Panjshir, around 130 kilometres (80 miles) northeast of the capital Kabul, is dominated by the snow-capped mountains of the Hindu Kush, plunging valleys and a fast-flowing river which snakes through the middle.

It is also one of Afghanistan's most peaceful areas. Panjshiris, mainly ethnic Tajiks, pride themselves on having kept out the Taliban and repelled the Soviet Union after its 1979 invasion.

US and Afghan officials hope this history and natural beauty could bring visitors to Panjshir and boost its economy as it makes the transition to Afghan security control from July, amid fears that foreign aid could plunge.

"This is not going to be Afghan Disneyland, this is not going to be Sandals resort Jamaica, this is Panjshir and we need to develop a style of tourism which is unique to Panjshir," said Morgan Keay, a tourism specialist at USAID, the US government's aid agency, who is working in the area.

People involved acknowledge there is a long way to go before most foreigners can be persuaded that Panjshir is safe enough for them. "For any clients who contact us, this is the first question - is Afghanistan safe?" said Muqim Jamshady, CEO of Kabul-based travel company Afghan Logistics and Tours. "Of course it's very hard to convince clients."

Panjshir was the home of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the charismatic French-speaking anti-Taliban commander often credited with forcing out the Soviets but who was assassinated two days before the September 11, 2001 attacks.

His tomb in the province - surrounded by abandoned, rusting Soviet tanks and trucks - is being developed into a $10 million tourist attraction complete with mosque, library and conference centre.

Officials expect Massoud's legacy to act as a focal point for tourism, along with adventure activities such as mountain trekking and kayaking. Mohammad Sorab Marazi, an ex-mujahedeen fighter who is now governor of the province's Dara district, said: "As Panjshir is one of the resistance centres against the Soviets and Al-Qaeda, everyone in the world knows about it... that's why people should come here and see what type of place it is."

Asked whether he would be happy to see Russian tourists coming to the area to explore historic battlefields, he added: "There will be no problem for the Russians coming to Afghanistan. Let them see the graves."

However, Panjshir has a long way to go before it develops a tourist industry. It has only two primitive guesthouses, no proper restaurants and certainly no visitor centres.

Some Kabul residents travel to the area for weekend picnics, but virtually no foreign tourists currently come to Panjshir.

Even assuming more people can be persuaded to visit, officials say careful preparations would be needed to ensure that locals are ready for them, perhaps through mullahs.

US officials raised the prospect of local men being offended by the sight of Western men kayaking down the river as women collect water from the banks. Potential investors who spoke at a recent Panjshir tourism conference organised by the US-led Provincial Reconstruction Team also raised practical concerns such as Afghanistan's lack of long-term leases for hoteliers.

Provincial leaders, though, are hungry for the revenue which tourism could bring.

"Tourists are not coming here to take things from us or insult our religion but to breathe the fresh air in the province," Abdul Rahman Kabiri, deputy governor of Panjshir, told the conference.

"Tourists will play an important part in the development of this country." Panjshir will be among the first wave of places in Afghanistan to pass from foreign to local security control from July.

US officials hope that, as their mission here winds down, industries such as tourism can grow enough to help make up for a likely shrinkage of funding from their government and other sources in future.

However, they acknowledge that the success or failure of that idea turns on whether there is peace in Afghanistan after the international troop drawdown, or still more war.

http://www.asiaone.com/News/AsiaOne%2BNews/World/Story/A1Story20110601-281842.html

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