BAZARAK, Afghanistan (AFP) ― A holiday in Afghanistan? It may not sound like an enticing prospect, but one province hopes that its history of warfare can help pull tourists in rather than put them off.
Panjshir, around 130 kilometers northeast of the capital Kabul, is dominated by the snow-capped mountains of the Hindu Kush, plunging valleys and a fast-flowing river which snakes through the middle.
It is also 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.
US and Afghan officials hope this history and natural beauty could bring visitors to Panjshir and boost its economy as it makes the transition to Afghan security control from July, amid fears that foreign aid could plunge.
“This is not going to be Afghan Disneyland, this is not going to be Sandals resort Jamaica, this is Panjshir and we need to develop a style of tourism which is unique to Panjshir,” said Morgan Keay, a tourism specialist at USAID, the US government’s aid agency, who is working in the area.
People involved acknowledge there is a long way to go before most foreigners can be persuaded that Panjshir is safe enough for them.
“For any clients who contact us, this is the first question ― is Afghanistan safe?” said Muqim Jamshady, CEO of Kabul-based travel company Afghan Logistics and Tours. “Of course it’s very hard to convince clients.”
Panjshir was the home of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the charismatic French-speaking anti-Taliban commander often credited with forcing out the Soviets but who was assassinated two days before the September 11, 2001 attacks.
His tomb in the province ― surrounded by abandoned, rusting Soviet tanks and trucks ― is being developed into a $10 million tourist attraction complete with mosque, library and conference center.
Officials expect Massoud’s legacy to act as a focal point for tourism, along with adventure activities such as mountain trekking and kayaking.
Mohammad Sorab Marazi, an ex-mujahedeen fighter who is now governor of the province’s Dara district, said: “As Panjshir is one of the resistance centers against the Soviets and al-Qaida, everyone in the world knows about it... that’s why people should come here and see what type of place it is.”
Asked whether he would be happy to see Russian tourists coming to the area to explore historic battlefields, he added: “There will be no problem for the Russians coming to Afghanistan. Let them see the graves.”
However, Panjshir has a long way to go before it develops a tourist industry. It has only two primitive guesthouses, no proper restaurants and certainly no visitor centers.
Some Kabul residents travel to the area for weekend picnics, but virtually no foreign tourists currently come to Panjshir.
Even assuming more people can be persuaded to visit, officials say careful preparations would be needed to ensure that locals are ready for them, perhaps through mullahs.
U.S. officials raised the prospect of local men being offended by the sight of Western men kayaking down the river as women collect water from the banks.
Potential investors who spoke at a recent Panjshir tourism conference organized by the US-led Provincial Reconstruction Team also raised practical concerns such as Afghanistan’s lack of long-term leases for hoteliers.
Provincial leaders, though, are hungry for the revenue which tourism could bring.
“Tourists are not coming here to take things from us or insult our religion but to breathe the fresh air in the province,” Abdul Rahman Kabiri, deputy governor of Panjshir, told the conference.
“Tourists will play an important part in the development of this country.”
Panjshir will be among the first wave of places in Afghanistan to pass from foreign to local security control from July.
U.S. officials hope that, as their mission here winds down, industries such as tourism can grow enough to help make up for a likely shrinkage of funding from their government and other sources in future.
However, they acknowledge that the success or failure of that idea turns on whether there is peace in Afghanistan after the international troop drawdown, or still more war.