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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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"Tourism is one of the only industries that quickly brings money to everyone," says Muqim Jamshady, head of Afghan Logistics & Tours.

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Where has the money gone?

Residents of the 13 villages around the park are hoping the national park will bring those quick dollars, but that hasn't happened. That's because preservation efforts have proceeded much faster than tourism development.

The views have improved: Shops no longer encroach on the lake, a fuel-leaking motorboat is now banned, and "fishing" with grenades has been quashed. But the new restrictions – which also apply to hunting, grazing, and adding cultivation to nearby fields – have cut into local livelihoods.

Residents are suspicious about where the park fees collected from visitors go. A portion is supposed to help fund local community projects.

"They have not paid a penny. It's collected, but no one knows where it goes," says Muhammad Hussein Azimi, who runs the local guesthouse.

The money is safe in a bank account, says Bamiyan Gov. Habiba Surabi. It cannot be distributed until the Ministry of Finance in Kabul signs off on the revenue-sharing plan. She blames this and the "slow process" of getting the park up and running on the "very centralized" government system. Just getting rid of the polluting motorboat involved a two-year battle between an Afghan vice president and the governor.

'A national park in name only'

Much work has been done by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) using US Agency for International Development funds to preserve the land, survey the wildlife, and manage a broad committee to create the park. But locals have seen little action on the ground. One person from each of the villages received tour-guide training last year, but they don't seem to know what to do next – or even where to meet tourists. One obvious place would be the welcome center, built two years ago by WCS, but rangers say it's used by officials more than by tourists.

"Honestly, it's a national park in name only," says acting park representative Sayed Muhammad Husseini Dartmond. "Even this building you are sitting in, if [aid groups] paid for it, it's not to help us do more: It's just for them to come here for themselves and stay overnight."

The station is no longer used for overnight stays. "We realized it was inappropriate," says Chris Shank, a WCS program manager. The vision is that the station will be a hub for tourists, he says, and there has been "a lag time, no question," in tourist development.

Natural beauty leads to tourists, which leads to income for locals, says Dr. Shank. But, "We've been very clear right from the beginning that there are no guarantees."

The good news is that New Zealand has dedicated money to tourism projects here, and the road linking Kabul to Bamiyan and Band-e-Amir is finally being fixed, widened, and paved. Frustration over the road's neglect erupted last year in a protest.

But even with a good road, news of violence in other parts of Afghanistan may scare visitors away from Bamiyan, where international forces have yet to fire a bullet in eight years.

"If we had stability here, there are rivers to be rafted, so many peaks to hike," Mann says. "But you've got to have peace."