The lakes of Band-e-Amir, Afghanistan

by Agence-France Presse AFP, Jan 5, 2009 | Destinations: Afghanistan

BAND-E-AMIR, November 25, 2008 - Swan-shaped pedal boats bob in the sapphire-blue lakes of Band-e-Amir as tradesmen peddle their wares on the shore. Then, as if from nowhere, two US Black Hawks roar low over the water.

Welcome to tourism Afghan-style, in one of the war-torn country's few national parks, about 80 kilometres (42 miles) from the town of Bamiyan where the Taliban destroyed the world's tallest Buddha statues in 2001.

During Afghanistan's 1960s hippy trail heyday, Band-e-Amir's six mineral-rich lakes and pink cliffs were the country's holiday paradise, visited by tens of thousands of domestic and foreign tourists every summer.

"Before the war," sighed Shah Is'haq, a 68-year-old jewellery salesmen perched on the bank of the placid waters, "thousands of foreigners were coming here. The life, back then, was very good."

"Those days are now gone," said Is'haq, mourning Afghanistan's woes from the 1979-89 Soviet occupation, to the ensuing civil war, the 1996-2001 Islamist Taliban regime and now the US-led fight against Taliban insurgents.

The roads around the lakes were heavily mined by local militias and the Taliban in the 1990s, and only a dirt track is safe.

The journey from Kabul takes a bone-shaking 12 hours, and passes through some areas where attacks have taken place.

But the brightly coloured pedalos and trinket sellers at the lakes -- dubbed Afghanistan's Grand Canyon -- hint at growing efforts to bring back the golden tourist years despite the violence.

In Bamiyan city, Italian tourist Alessandro Califano said he was aware of the security problems in Afghanistan but had not faced any difficulties himself.

"I think it is a wonderful place," Califano, a museum curator in his native Rome, said at a hotel overlooking the niches in a huge sandstone cliff that once housed the two 1,500-year-old Buddha statues.

"Even if the Buddhas have been blown into the air, it has a certain aura. The natural setting is simply fabulous," he said.

"The only threat I faced here was finding a scorpion in the bath," Califano said, smiling. Otherwise it was "safe and pleasant".

Let's hope for the future

Despite the destruction of the statues in March 2001, officials and residents argue that Bamiyan province can still claw back lucrative tourism.

The remains of the statues were declared a UN World Heritage Site in 2003, while the Afghan government has submitted the lakes for recognition on the same list.

Bamiyan city opened a rudimentary tourist centre in late October, backed by the New Zealand government which has a small military contingent there, and is now planning a map of key sites and an institute to train hotel workers.

"We are working on a project for Bamiyan tourism," said Habiba Sorabi, the provincial governor and the only woman to hold such a position in Afghanistan.

With the population mainly comprising Shi'ite Muslim ethnic Hazaras who loathe the Taliban, Bamiyan is a relative oasis of peace in Afghanistan.

This year for example, more than 1,000 "foreigners" visited the scenic valley and Band-e-Amir, the governor said over green tea in her hilltop office.

But getting central government funds to pave the bumpy road through green valleys and barren mountains from Kabul is a priority for getting tourists to the area, Sorabi said.

"So let's hope for the future," she said.

In Kabul, officials share the same hopes but admit that reviving tourism could be tough, with Afghanistan's infrastructure still in ruins and security suffering from the worsening Taliban insurgency.

Nearly 70,000 NATO and US-led troops are still in Afghanistan, and US president-elect Barack Obama has said that he plans to begin pulling US troops out of Iraq to switch the military focus to the Central Asian nation.

Under its five-year national development blueprint, the Afghan government says it plans to promote tourism and encourage private investment in the industry.

"We have the plans in front of us," Deputy Information, Culture and Tourism Minister Ghulam Nabi Farhai said in Kabul. "At this time the biggest challenge ahead is security."

He added: "If we have security, if we have good roads and hotels, Afghanistan with its beautiful landscape, its pleasant climate and rich culture and history will become a perfect place for tourists."

Muqeem Jamshedi, the owner of Afghan Logistics and Tours, one of the few tourism firms established in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban, says Bamiyan and the lakes should be on any tourist's wish-list.

"Bamiyan and Band-e-Amir are the must-go places," said Jamshedi.

More than 150 "foreign tourists" have visited the valley this year through his company, which provides transport, hotel and security services, he added.

A former journalist, Jamshedi set up the company months after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, with high hopes that tourists would soon flood his country.

But so far, he said, his dreams have yet to come true.

"Tourists can't bring security, it's the security which brings the tourists. I hope for that security," he said.

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