Investing in tourism at a time when most predict increasing violence in Afghanistan may seem counter-intuitive. But officials and non-governmental organization activists in Afghanistan's central province of Bamiyan are doing exactly that. They say they are determined not to let development be held hostage to the 'gloom-and-doom' scenario facing most of the country. The province, which recently received a grant of $1.2 million from New Zealand's government, has launched an eco-tourism development initiative that hopes to build a sustainable visitor environment, putting the livelihood of the people at the centre of the policy. (New Zealand troops maintain a small military outpost in the province).
Implemented by the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) in coordination with the provincial government, the project seeks to ensure preservation of the region's unique natural and cultural heritage while helping locals enhance their skills to meet the demands of visiting tourists. Following the successful model of community-based tourism it has implemented in other areas of Central Asia, the AKF is focusing on capacity building, enhancing local handicraft production and constructing basic facilities for travelers. This could range from installing the most basic roadside hostels to encouraging investment in luxury accommodation.
Officials say Bamiyan will be connected to Kabul by a new road in three years. For Bamiyan residents, that is an exciting prospect and a working timeline.
"It is true that insecurity is a problem in Afghanistan now. But three years is enough for the international community and the Afghan government to think about security. We are optimistic that things will change positively in three years and that security will be better," says Amir Foladi who heads the eco-tourism program for the province. Foladi's optimism is based not just on future hopes, but also on past realities. Though visitors to the province have dropped in the past two years, Foladi reports that up to 44,000 visitors, local and foreign, spent time in the area in 2006. Tourists are drawn to the province by its natural beauty, the local legends, religious piety, and the thrill of adventure. The main attraction is a series of interlocking lakes that sparkle in brilliant crystalline blues and greens.
The province, once a cultural crossroads, is replete with layers of history and legend, some brutal -- such as the massacres carried out by Genghis Khan's legions -- and others auspicious, such as legends crediting Hazrat Ali with creating the lakes of Band-i Amir. Fable, history and the spectacular geography of the area fuse together.
The rise of modern commerce, trade and travel, however, caused this old branch of the Silk Road to become a backwater. The province became more isolated. The area's neglect deepened following Sunni Islam's rise as the predominant religious force in the region. Largely populated by Sh'ia-practicing ethnic Hazaras, Bamiyan faced horrific massacres under the Taliban. To this day, the Hazaras are some of the most welcoming to foreigners in the whole country.
With a bang, literally, the international spotlight returned to province, when the Taliban, in the last year of their rule in Kabul, blew up the area's two giant Buddhas as a gesture of defiance. The action drew international opprobrium. Since the fall of the fundamentalist movement, the destroyed Buddhas have attracted thousands of curious visitors, just as they did during the days of the 'Hippie Trail' of the 1960s and 70s. Combined with the relative safety of the province and the openness and warmth of the people, the area is a must-see on the itinerary of every foreigner and tourist in Afghanistan. Even several large Japanese tour groups have visited, drawn by the religious significance of the place.
While growing insecurity has caused a drop in visitors, for Hiromi Yasui, who used to help organize the Japanese tours, the hospitality business is still booming. Looking out at the caves where the fifth century Buddhas once stood some fifty meters tall, and across the verdant valley, on a recent chilly fall day, her Silk Route hotel is full. Hiromi's spectacular cooking, combined with the luxurious trappings of her guesthouse, makes the business she runs with her Afghan husband a popular place.
But it is the development community, not tourists, who consistently fill Hiromi's guesthouse. Bamiyan has no commercial flights and the road to Kabul is unpaved. Bumpy and pitted, it turns a distance of three hours into a backbreaking drive of eight to 12 hours, depending on the roadworthiness of the transport. The crowd at the hotel has mainly flown in on aircraft dedicated to serving the UN, NGOs, and the donor community.
At the 'Roof of Bamiyan,' an older hotel perched on nearby cliffs, hotelier Razaq is uncertain what benefits the new eco-tourism will bring.
"What we need is security. The rest we can do ourselves. Bamiyan may be secure, but if the neighboring areas are not, people will not come," he says.
Bamiyan's dynamic governor has an answer.
"Road, road and road," says Governor Habiba Sarobi, chanting a mantra she has repeated for several years. "Roads still remain our number one priority." Sarobi, the sole woman governor in Afghanistan, was instrumental in securing the aid for the tourism project and is generally considered to be an efficient and able administrator.
"Along with agriculture and mining, tourism can generate revenue for our people," she adds.
The natural beauty helps. Band-i Amir will likely become the first national park in Afghanistan, fulfilling a long-delayed destiny. "The area is very weak in bio-diversity," says WCS Country Director Peter Smallwood candidly, noting how the years of conflict have taken their toll on the wilderness. However he hopes that the area can be an engine to drive policy and legal issues that could then protect other large areas of bio-diversity scattered through the country.
Admitting that 2009 could be a difficult year for Afghanistan, Smallwood says WCS has nonetheless been engaged in identifying potential camping sites that seek to enhance the experience of visitors while preserving the natural habitat. "Band-i Amir is an important site," he says. "If Afghanistan can find peace, Band-i Amir will draw international tourists because there is nothing like those giant travertine dams in the world."
If that happens, tourists may enjoy the view from Bibi Khala's doorstep.
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 18 years.