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Rebuilding the tourist trail

Bamiyan is hemmed in by an escalating conflict, but with a vital air link now in reach, it is determined to capitalize on its stunning landscapes and reputation as one of Afghanistan’s safest provinces to rebuild…
4.07.2011  |  Bamiyan
Governor Sorabi at the investors' conference in Bamiyan. (Photo: Bamiyani) 
Governor Sorabi at the investors' conference in Bamiyan. (Photo: Bamiyani) 

An isolated travel destination for decades, tourism in ancient Bamiyan is finally about to grow wings, as hopes for establishing a long-awaited commercial air link to the province are finally rewarded.

A large airport that is planned is not likely to materialize for another five years, so the small existing airstrip that serves the international NGO community and a New Zealand military base is being upgraded for use by light passenger aircraft such as the 50-seater Antonov An-24.

“As soon as the route becomes active and operational for commercial flights Bamiyan will definitely become popular for travellers,” said Feda Mohammad Fedawi, vice president of Afghanistan’s Kamair carrier, which confirmed that it will open the route as soon as the modest upgrade to Afghan civil aviation standards is complete.

Interested guests

Strong tourist potential is also something provincial governor Habiba Sorabi impressed on foreign participants at the Bamiyan investor tourism conference held in late May under the slogan of “Afghanistan’s Secure and Peaceful province – 1,500 years of Silk Road, Heritage and Magnificent Hindu Kush.”

“After agriculture and livestock, the tourism industry is the third stable economic means for the people of Bamiyan,” said Sorabi, who is Afghanistan’s only female governor.

The event was attended by respresentatives of an unusual mix of foreign companies from countries as far as Kenya and Costa Rica specialising in everything from adventure holidays to airline meals. They are understandably reluctant to disclose any concrete investment plans. But as a British participant, Kabul guest house owner Peter Jouvenal, said, “Bamiyan has a lot to offer.”

Tourist tradition, shattered homeland

A vibrant tourism scene would not be new here. In the 1960s and 70s the province with its architectural remains of bygone civilizations was a firm favourite on the hippy trail to India.

Kiwi soldiers on patrol in Bamiyan. (Photo: Böge)

Local man Hajji Safar, 62, has fond memories of Bamiyan’s tourist heyday three decades ago. He recently recalled how he and his friends would make a modest income taking foreigners by horse and cart to see the ancient sites and landscapes of places like Kakarak.

“Compared to now,  tourists were received much better back then,” he said. “In Kakarak they’d take photos and cinefilma of these beautifiul scenes and a small statue that was there and then we’d set up a tent by the river … I will never forget those wonderful and memorable days.”

But occupation and war against the Soviets put an end to that idyllic era, as the wrecked armoured vehicles still strewn along roadsides in the province still testify.  Then during the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule came the brutal repression of the Shia Hazara population of Bamiyan and the destruction of its finest monuments.

Sadly, the 1500-year-old Buddha statues of Bamiyan are gone, smashed by the Taliban in a heinous act of vandalism in 2001. Only the empty alcoves remain today. But there is no dynamiting the breathtaking lake and mountain panoramas that can draw visitors and money back to the central Afghan province.

Areas like Yakawlang and the Band-e-Amir lakes, Afghanistan’s first national park, are reknowned for their natural beauty. Today, partners like the Agha Khan Development Network (AKDN) are helping the province to build on its ecotourism potential by creating facilities for sightseeing, hiking and skiing.

The next generation

So far AKDN helped train ten professional guides for outdoor adventurers drawn to Bamiyan, and it even hired Italian mountain guide Ferdinando Rollando to inject some Alpine know-how.

He for one is optimistic that the coming winter season will see a respectable increase in Alpine skiiers eager to test their mettle in unorthodox surrounds.

“They are always on the lookout for new places to explore,” said Rollando, who last winter helped bring the first 44 foreign skiers to Bamiyan for weekend breaks.

No one disputes that there are still considerable obstacles, not least of all the fragile security situation around the fringes of the province. Underscoring the need for the air route, the head of the provincial council was taken from his car at gunpoint in June while driving to Parwan province and murdered.

Thanks to good security, the provincial center is a peaceful little town. 

“The security situation across the country is worrying, but in spite of this, tourism here has taken great strides,” said Amir Foladi, head of the Bamiyan Ecotourism Programme being jointly implemented by AKDN and the local administration. Despite the rare but shocking incidents, the flow of visitors is growing, even before the air link is cemented: “Last year 3,311 tourists visited the province, up 68 per cent from 2009,” Foladi added.

Most of these are Afghan visitors. But 800 foreigners made weekend trips here last summer, mainly diplomats and aid workers from Kabul.

Accordingly the number of hotel bed spaces has grown to 388, more than double the number three years ago, and is predicted to rise to 1,000 by 2015. According to AKDN, the eventual target is to have 10,000 foreign and 100,000 Afghan tourists each year.

Afghan government must step up

The airstrip is almost within reach to commercial operators, and there are paved roads from Kabul under construction with international assistance. In Bamiyan’s favour, so far, also counts the security situation inside the province, which is one of the safest in the country. Today, the Hazaras guard their territory with great efficiency, aided by Bamiyan’s small contingent of troops from New Zealand.

But much as the provincial government is working to generate tourism opportunities, the central authorities must do more, say others who are considering investing here. Among other deficiences, the tax system is vague and full of hidden traps once you start to put money into projects, complained another participant in the May conference who did not wish to be named.
“This is a war-torn country, so the Afghan government must be more welcoming than it is,” he said.