Magazine article Geographical

When the War Is Over: In Regions Recovering from Conflict Such as Kashmir, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor, Tourism Can Help to Rebuild Not Only Economies, but Also Self Esteem and Local Identity

Magazine article Geographical

When the War Is Over: In Regions Recovering from Conflict Such as Kashmir, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor, Tourism Can Help to Rebuild Not Only Economies, but Also Self Esteem and Local Identity

Article excerpt

Announcing that this year you're planning to holiday in Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq or Sierra Leone will typically have an effect on bystanders akin to expressing a desire to go skinny dipping with great white sharks, arm wrestle an alligator or sky dive without a parachute.

First there's the double-take and the request to repeat what you've just said, swiftly followed by a shaking of the head in disbelief and a breathless discussion of the Janjaweed, al-Qaeda, drone strikes, genocide and the price of travel insurance. In some cases, the concerns are perfectly valid; in others, they simply echo media coverage and public perceptions that are years out of date.

In countries where peoples' lives and livelihoods have been torn apart by war, tourism has a vital role to play, and for almost a decade, we've been trying to encourage people to look beyond attention-grabbing headlines and see something of the real people and real places that lie behind. Long before the Foreign and Commonwealth office lifts its travel restrictions, small numbers of tourists can and do make their way into ravaged communities, helping them to rebuild their lives physically, financially and psychologically.

Although the economic benefits of tourism are pretty well understood, few people appreciate the far-reaching impact that tourism has on regional stability, government accountability and giving ordinary people hope for the future. The very presence of tourists and, in particular, foreign tourists, can provide the boost that a community needs to finally move beyond conflict and into a period of stability and growth.

As we were once told by a man in South Sudan: 'Now you are here, we know that the war is finished.'

DIRECT INVESTMENT

The economic impact of tourism is perhaps the easiest to comprehend; the dollars spent by independent tourists go straight into the hands of taxi drivers, porters, restaurant staff, souvenir sellers, guides, translators and others they come into contact with. Unlike aid money, which is typically filtered inefficiently through government bodies (and can often suffer substantial losses at the hands of corrupt officials), or direct investment by multinationals, which are responsible primarily to their share holders, money from independent tourists goes straight into the local economy and loses nothing to intermediaries.

The effect of tourism on household incomes is seen starkly in Afghanistan's remote but wildly beautiful Wakhan Corridor, where more than 90 per cent of the 14,000 inhabitants depend on subsistence agriculture and wages in other jobs are pitifully low. Local school teachers, for example, take home US$60 a month and are often paid late; casual labourers typically earn US$3 per day and are often paid in wheat instead of cash.

Recognising the region's potential for trekking and mountaineering, the Aga Khan Development Network has trained guides and porters, and funded the construction of basic guesthouses in a number of villages. Although the trekking season is relatively short and the total number of annual visitors to the Wakhan is yet to surpass 200, experienced trekking guides can earn as much as US$50 per day, porters make US$10 per day, and tourists pay guesthouse owners US$30-35 a night for bed and board. Flence, the visit of a single trekking party can double a village's annual income; every tourist counts.

In Afghanistan and many places like it, the economic potential that tourism offers could theoretically be enough to stop communities relapsing into conflict. Places with high unemployment extreme poverty and low aspirations are fertile breeding grounds for extremism and violence, and the taking up of arms is often motivated by economic factors.

In 2010, the then commander of the International Security Assistance Force, General Stanley McChrystal, testified to the US Congress that Taliban fighters could expect to earn US$300 a month. …

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