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Seeing beyond Bamiyan's blasted Buddhas

Zafar Bamyani
For years Bamiyan was scarred by the image of the Buddhist statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. But the opening of Afghanistan's first National Park, Band-e Amir, a spate of new investments in tourism…
12.05.2015  |  Bamiyan
Highland Hotel, Bamiyan, one of several new luxury resorts to promote tourism (photo: Zafar Bamyani)
Highland Hotel, Bamiyan, one of several new luxury resorts to promote tourism (photo: Zafar Bamyani)

While the government in Kabul tackles the Taliban’s annual spring offensive, provincial authorities in Bamiyan have been busy launching an offensive all of their own, albeit one of charm, to celebrate the province’s designation as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Capital of Culture 2015. The new label has added prestige, say local tourism officials, although a concerted government drive to strengthen tourism in the province was underway well before.

Twenty million US dollars have been invested into five luxury facilities and hotels in the last five years in the province, which boasts such natural wonders as Band-e Amir, Afghanistan’s only national park, a plethora of Central Asian Buddhist temples and ruins as well as are what are believed to be some of the oldest cave paintings in the world.

More investment, less tourists

Despite the concerted investment, alongside new direct airlinks to the capital Kabul, the number of tourists visiting Bamiyan has decreased, say local authorities. In 2013 although there were no flights flying into Bamiyan province, we still had more than 600 foreign tourists,” says Ahmad Hussain Ahmadpur, head of the Provincial Department of Information and Culture in Bamiyan. “In 2014 this number decreased almost to half, but we hope with improved security and facilities - and the availability of more flights into Bamiyan - that the number of tourists will increase again.”

An American skier checked in at the newly-built Highlands Hotel says despite the dangers, Bamiyan is worth a visit. “I am very happy with the services in this hotel,” says Sam Gregory, one of a handful of foreign guests at the 140 US dollar per night establishment, who added that the region was one of the most beautiful he had ever visited anywhere.

East Horizon Airlines, a domestic Afghan carrier, now operates two weekly scheduled flights from Kabul to Bamiyan, according to Omaid, a sales agent with the Kabul-based operator. Small 47-seater Antonov planes depart Kabul on Monday and Thursdays: A one-way fare costs 5384 afghani (93 US dollars) and the flight time is approximately 30 minutes. The airline’s scheduled flights have made the 150-kilometre trip from the Afghan capital more accessible to foreign and domestic tourists, as journeys by road are plagued by kidnappings and insecurity.

Museum to stand beside blasted Buddhas

The site where one of two Buddha statues was destroyed with explosives by the Taliban in 2001. (Photo: F Noori)

Improved air infrastructure and sleeping facilities are only part of the longer-term developments in the tourism sector. The Bamiyan Cultural Centre, according to a November 2014 UNESCO press statement, “will support artistic and cultural processes, using the institution as a platform to connect the public with Afghan cultural traditions and practices. The space will host permanent and temporary exhibitions, with the overall aim of promoting cross-cultural understanding and heritage safeguarding through education, training, research, lectures and performance events”.  The Bamiyan Cultural Centre will be built on a 26,000 square-metre space facing the empty spaces where two Buddha statues, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, once stood. It will be financed by the Republic of Korea and implemented by UNESCO and the Afghan government. A design for the space was selected through a competition in January this year.  

Capital of Culture 2015

As part of Bamiyan’s Capital of Culture designation, several events, fairs and symposia will be held throughout the year in the province: these include the First International Fair for Culture and Eco-Tourism, which will be held in November, a Silk Road festival, Buddhism awareness events, as well as tours of heritage sites, performances by local artists and special culinary nights, according to the programme.

Other key tourist props have already been established. The Bamiyan Tourism Information Centre was opened in March this year and although the SAARC Capital of Culture was supposed to be inaugurated on May 3rd, the launch has now been postponed to June, when President Ghani is expected to visit and inaugurate both the Capital of Culture events and the Bamiyan Cutural Centre during his scheduled trip.

The local police chief is confident that not only the president but many more tourists will be able to safely visit Bamiyan and enjoy the Capital of Culture events. “Our security forces in Bamiyan have been preparing for three months to avoid any security incidents caused by anti-government elements,” Colonel Mohammad Ali Lakzai, police chief in Bamyan province, told Afghanistan Today. Not everybody agrees however.

Tourists arriving in drips

Handcraft specialists display their products at a market in Bamiyan City. (Photo: Tahera Hussaini)

“The instability on the roads leading to Bamiyan and the volatile security situation in the country prevents domestic tourists from coming and this has caused our revenues to drop,” says Abdullah Mahmodi manager at the Highland Hotel, one of the 5-star resorts recently built with government money.

Business leaders say the SAARC spotlight on Bamiyan however has already helped to attract more visitors to the region. “With the start of SAARC festivals the number of visitors has increased,” Uzra Lali, a handcraft artisan working in a market in Bamiyan City, told Afghanistan Today. Bamiyan artisans produce embroidered products, handwoven carpets, rugs, wades and lace items famous all over Afghanistan. Women, many of whom are happy that their work will be on display during the SAARC Capital of Culture year, make most of these products from animal wool or local types of bark.

Many of the artisans are excited about the new opportunities afforded by the spotlight. “With the start of spring and the arrival of the SAARC festivals, the women producing handcrafts in this province are motivated to produce much finer and better products for the customers,” says Haleema Rezai, a local entrepreneur.

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