Afghanistan's first national park waits for tourists
It hopes to attract adventurous visitors – but a surge in violence and development woes put that at risk.
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That's how Dennis, a tourist from Colorado, tries to put the beauty of Band-e-Amir in context, as he helps his German friend Lukas (they decline to give last names) pitch their tent by one of the area's famed travertine lakes.
"I've never seen any other lake of that stunning blue," Lukas says.
On June 18, Band-e-Amir will be officially inaugurated as Afghanistan's first national park. International organizations, the Afghan government, and local villagers are all hoping that the designation will inspire more tourists to come to this war-ravaged nation.
The idea may sound quixotic, given the surge in Taliban violence and US troop deployments here. But the park lies in the safest region of the country, in the Baba Mountains of central Afghanistan – a mixed blessing, since foreign donors have focused their help on hot spots first.
The park's fruition has also been hampered by problems that hinder other Afghan development projects, including slow government decisionmaking, tensions between jet-setting coordinators and rural locals, and disappearing money. And, as with other projects, this one seems to be getting in gear just as security is slipping.
"Last year was a particularly discouraging year," says Andre Mann, manager of The Great Game Travel Company in Kabul. "We've decided to give it another year and see what happens. We hope [August] elections stabilize things so that our business can grow."
At its busiest in 2007, his company booked some 300 foreigners on tours of Afghanistan. Last year, the number slipped to 150, and this year he estimates he will only get 80. The other tour operator, Afghan Logistics & Tours, saw a similar falloff from roughly 75 tourists a year to 50 or 60.
Exactly how many tourists visit Band-e-Amir is unknown, with the governor of Bamiyan Province saying 500 last year and aid agencies saying it was thousands. The discrepancy might relate to who is counted as a tourist – many Afghans visit the site, as well as expatriates like Dennis and Lukas, who work in Kabul. The one guesthouse in the park hosts 500 to 800 guests each year.
The potential is much bigger: Crowds thronged here in the peaceful 1960s and '70s.
"We are working to set up the infrastructure to make this sustainable, so it doesn't end up like [overdeveloped] Thailand," says Mr. Mann. "In the '70s it was heading in that direction. The war spared it that, and now we are trying to do it right."
Locals have fonder memories – especially of the money tourists brought. Dennis and Lukas's driver, Ezat Ullah, gets $50 a day to bring visitors here. Other Western tourists here recently, Jerome Mathieu and Berengere Travard, say they spent $80 a day on a hotel and meals.