Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Wanderlust in a Country at War ; despite Travel Advisories and Threats from Taliban, Afghanistan Lures Visitors

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Wanderlust in a Country at War ; despite Travel Advisories and Threats from Taliban, Afghanistan Lures Visitors

Article excerpt

Few tourist destinations are as exotic as Afghanistan, with its snowcapped mountains, ancient Buddhist monuments and Islamic architecture. Despite threats from the Taliban and travel warnings, some still visit.

The Taliban have a message for foreign tourists who come to Afghanistan, especially if they are from any of the 50 countries that have been part of the NATO-led coalition supporting the government: big mistake.

"It is part of our war strategy to target any foreign citizen whose country has a military presence in Afghanistan and enters our country without permission from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," Zabiullah Mujahid, the spokesman for the insurgents in northern and eastern Afghanistan, said by telephone from an undisclosed location.

The U.S. government has a similar message for potential tourists. "No part of Afghanistan should be considered immune from violence," says the U.S. State Department's latest travel advisory. "There is an ongoing and increased risk of kidnapping and assassination of U.S. citizens."

And yet some tourists do still travel to Afghanistan. Two of those who recently did were a newlywed couple, a pregnant American and her husband, a Canadian. They apparently arrived in Afghanistan in early October and disappeared by mid-October, reportedly kidnapped in an area with many insurgents. They were traveling partly on foot, staying in a tent and in local guesthouses, according to family members, and have not been heard from since.

Another two were a wealthy Russian couple who hired an armored car and bodyguards at $1,500 a day, stayed in the Kabul Serena Hotel, where rooms cost at least $350 a night, toured the Panjshir Valley and went home on schedule.

"Until 2005, we were driving tourists everywhere," said Muqim Jamshady, owner of Afghan Logistics & Tours, who said his company was the only one in the country still catering to foreign visitors. "Now we are operating still, but very carefully."

Few tourist destinations are as exotic as Afghanistan, which has some of the world's most rugged, snowcapped mountains in the Hindu Kush and Pamir ranges, ancient Buddhist monuments and stunning Islamic architecture, like the Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif.

Mr. Jamshady said he often discouraged prospective tourists, especially those who wanted to travel in groups. "We really tell them, don't come on your own -- come through a friend who works in an NGO, in small groups or ones and twos," he said, referring to a nongovernmental organization. "Security is the priority for us. We don't want to ruin the reputation of our company. Pure tourists, I would say there are only 100 to 150 a year."

Afghanistan has been consumed by war, off and on, for three decades, but the collapse of the tourism industry, Mr. Jamshady said, dates from the kidnapping of a South Korean tour group by the Taliban in 2007. Two of the South Koreans in the group were killed, and 19 were freed after six weeks in captivity and the payment of a ransom reportedly totaling $20 million. South Korea also agreed to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.

Security throughout Afghanistan only worsened after that, and tourism was all but wiped out by 2008. The number of places in the country that are safe to visit has dwindled steadily.

"We didn't host a single tourist guest last year, and the year before there were only a few of them," said Abdul Saboor Shafaq, owner of Hotel Silk Road in Bamian Province, which is in central Afghanistan and is one of its safest areas. …

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