In Taliban Afghanistan, foreign tourism is emerging

Thai tourists pose for a group photo on March 25, 2024 in front of the Kart-e-Sakhi mosque in Kabul (AFP/Wakil Kohsar)

Afghanistan is not the first tourist destination that comes to mind, yet more and more foreigners are venturing into the country of the Taliban, crossing its checkpoints and its mountain passes, traveling through its steppes.

Met in Mazar-e-Sharif, the French Didier Goudant and the American Oscar Wells have just discovered the Blue Mosque, a 15th century jewel of the great northern city.

They also visited what remains of the sites of this Balkh province with its illustrious past, dressed in the shalwar kameez, the Afghan tunic and baggy pants, and wearing the felt pakol.

“It’s to be a little discreet,” explains the Frenchman, a 57-year-old lawyer, who is making his second trip to Afghanistan, a destination formally discouraged by Western chancelleries.

“The first thing your loved ones say to you is: ‘You’re crazy to go there!’,” he says.

French tourist Didier Goudant (l) chats with an American tourist, Oscar Wells, in a hotel in Mazar-e-Sharif, March 7, 2024

French tourist Didier Goudant (l) chats with an American tourist, Oscar Wells, in a hotel in Mazar-e-Sharif, March 7, 2024 (AFP/Atif ARYAN)

The traveler in Afghanistan is confronted with extreme poverty, the absence of tourist infrastructure and the scarcity of cultural sites after the destruction and looting of four decades of war.

He must register with authorities upon arrival in each province and adhere to a strict dress code. He is exposed to searches by men armed with Kalashnikovs at countless checkpoints.

More than that of kidnappings, the threat of attacks by ISIS jihadists persists, even if security has generally returned after the return of the Taliban to power in August 2021.

The attraction of Afghanistan lies in the wild and harsh beauty of its landscapes, their light, and the contact with a population with legendary hospitality.

“The Afghans are very welcoming, they will buy a sheep to entertain you for dinner,” says Mr. Goudant.

– “Bad image” –

The two travelers have just skied in Bamiyan (center) with villagers, a week organized by Untamed Borders, a British agency which brought around a hundred tourists to Afghanistan last year.

Tourists “like us are curious and want to be in contact with the population, to try to help them a little,” says the Frenchman.

This year, he brought “130 kg of ski equipment” to Bamiyan.

A tour guide photographs a Thai tourist on March 25, 2024 during the visit to the Kart-e-Sakhi cemetery in Kabul

A tour guide photographs a Thai tourist on March 25, 2024 during a visit to the Kart-e-Sakhi cemetery in Kabul (AFP/Wakil KOHSAR)

Mr. Wells, a farmer in the Midwest, who, at 65, is visiting Afghanistan for the third time, loves this “unique” country, “its magnificent mountains” and “its people who live like old times”.

With the return of the Taliban, “we can do more things, like go to the South,” says James Willcox, founder of Untamed Borders.

But “it also brought disruption: our female guide (Afghan) had to go and live in Italy.”

The Taliban government is not recognized by any country because of its ultra-rigorous application of Islamic law and the multiplication of restrictive measures against women.

However, the number of foreign tourists in Afghanistan increased by 120% to nearly 5,200 last year year-on-year, according to official figures.

Kabul has just reopened an Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management.

This is so that “the enemies of Afghanistan” stop “painting a bad image,” explained the Minister of Information and Culture, Khairullah Khairkhwa.

– Solo travel –

The insecurity worried Nayuree Chainton, a 45-year-old Thai woman who owns a travel agency in Bangkok. She came to explore the Afghan terrain, with a group of compatriots.

“We didn’t know much about the situation here,” but “I feel safe, despite all the checkpoints,” she said while visiting the turquoise Kart-e-Sakhi mosque in Kabul.

“On our return we will promote Afghanistan.”

Thai tourists check in at the reception of a hotel in Kabul, March 25, 2024

Thai tourists check in at the reception of a hotel in Kabul, March 25, 2024 (AFP/Wakil KOHSAR)

Alongside organized trips, the majority but expensive option – 2,600 euros for nine days with Untamed Borders departing from Islamabad – some travel across Afghanistan alone and with small budgets.

Including women.

Stefanie Meier, a 53-year-old American, traveled for a month, without incident, from Kabul to Kandahar (south), via Bamiyan then Herat (west).

Everything is fine “as long as you understand that it’s going to be chaotic!”, jokes the engineer.

The American “encountered no difficulties being a woman traveling alone” and even slept twice in a local’s home.

“I met people who told me about their lives,” she says, but it was “a bittersweet experience.”

“I asked myself how (the Afghans) can live with poverty, unemployment, girls deprived of education, without a future.”

– Small budgets –

Social networks, particularly WhatsApp, provide valuable assistance to tourists traveling alone and on small budgets.

Very active, the Afghanistan Travel Experience group brings together more than 600 backpackers — Mexican, Canadian, Indian, Australian and Italian — already there or leaving.

They exchange tips on the state of the roads, safety, and the price of shared taxis. They look for traveling companions or a cheap hotel, if possible with hot water.

These backpackers prefer the coach to the planes which serve the big cities and do not shy away from the 20-hour journey between Kabul and Herat, 850 km away.

Likewise, to visit the majestic valleys of Bamiyan — the first tourist destination — where the empty niches of the giant Buddhas dynamited by the Taliban in 2001 exert an almost hypnotic attraction, there is only the road: four or five hours from Kabul.

On the WhatsApp group, sometimes the questions are unexpected.

Alberto wants to know if it is “haram” (forbidden) to travel with your dog, and Soo if “there is a co-working space in Mazar-e-Sharif”.

© 2024 AFP

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