It’s a sign of peace returning to a war-torn nation. Believe it or not, at least two regions of Afghanistan are gearing up for tourists. Panjshir and Bamyan have held tourism conferences in a buoyant mood about their future.
Panjshir is around 130km northeast of Kabul, dominated by the snow-capped mountains of the Hindu Kush, steep valleys and a fast-flowing river which winds its way through the middle. It is 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. The residents of the valley, including a small population of Hazaras, are a community of about 150,000.
On May 28-29, the Panjshir Tourism Development Conference brought together potential tourism sector investors, tour operators and media to explore with tourism “enablers” like the Aga Khan Development Network and Afghan and U.S. officials how to develop tourism in the province. Tourism has been identified along with agriculture and mining as one of the three areas where Panjshir enjoys comparative economic advantage.
The Panjshir provincial government, which hosted the conference with assistance from the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency (AISA) and the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team, is expecting significant American and other foreign private sector participation.
Its relative isolation up to the present day and the inhabitants’ long and difficult struggle against first the Soviets and then the Taliban under the charismatic leadership of national hero Ahmad Shah Massoud has bred a strong identity. Highlights of the area include:
- Ahmed Shah Massoud’s Tomb. His earthly remains are entombed in this memorial complex. The view northeast overlooks his birthplace and early home in Jangalak. The view southwest overlooks Parakh village and the growing provincial administrative centre.
- The highest point of the area is Mir Samir, 19,880ft (6050m). This seldom climbed, glacial peak was the goal of the Eric Newby and Hugh Carless expedition recounted in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush published in 1958.
- The Lions’ Gate – a 2km gap in the Hindu Kush through which the Panjshir River flows before entering the Shomali Plain. The historical entrance to Panjshir for millennia of travellers and warriors.
Understandably, there are concerns about the reliability of hotels and services, and while allied troops and Afghans are dying daily in other regions, the concept of tourism may sit uneasily with some people. Afghanistan has been off the tourist map for 10 long years. Panjshir will be among the first wave of places in Afghanistan to pass from foreign to local security control from July. Intrepid visitors have never stopped going there entirely, but this is the first major move to attract tourists en masse.
The conference followed another one in Kabul, reports the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). International and Afghan investors flocked to Bamyan late May for a conference to strengthen eco-tourism and adventure sports, while also discussing ways to build up the transportation and tourist logistics in the city.
Bamyan, situated 230km northwest of Kabul, was famous for its towering statues of Buddha, carved into the rockface. They were intentionally blown up and destroyed in March 2001 by the Talian, after the Taliban government declared that they were “idols”.International opinion strongly condemned the destruction of the Buddhas. Buddhist nations such as Japan have vowed to help reconstruct them.
“Tourism will be sustainable income of development for Bamyan citizens,” said Bamyan Provincial Governor Habiba Sarabi who opened the three-day conference planned by the provincial government with stakeholders from the private sector, NGOs and donors.
“For us, this is a great day. It is incredible. I assure you that Bamyan is a good place for secure investments. I hope that next time, you could all bring at least 10 people with you, at least as tourists,” she added.
Bamyan is also training tour guides to bring tourists around the province’s famous sites – including the now empty Buddha caverns – and Bamyan University has since established a tourism faculty.
For its part, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which has a field office in Bamyan, is developing walking trails in consultation with local communities along the identified routes. The conference also focused on improving visitor services like accommodations, guiding services, skiing instructors, and staff capacity development in tourism services including hotel management.
More info on the Buddhas of Bamyan: whc.unesco.org/en/list/208
More info on Panjshir Province:www.visitpanjshi.com
More info on UNAMA: unama.unmissions.org/