The slogan for Ariana Afghan Airlines used to read: ‘Be a second Marco Polo, fly Ariana.’ Marco Polo travelled through Afghanistan in the wake of Genghis Khan’s rampage but, as I arrive in Kabul aboard this now newly resurrected national carrier, I’m flying into a country trying to emerge from yet another war, this one having raged for the past 25 years. Leaving the airport, it’s possible to see the remains of Ariana’s previous fleet lying in a field, a mess of twisted fuselages and wings bombed into scrap during the height of the civil war. Tens of thousands of Kabulis also lost their lives.
Kabul has changed a lot since my last visit, a fortnight after the September 11 attacks. There is a real buzz to the place, with new businesses opening and a lively energy in the air. Under the Taliban, the city had been hushed and stifled; now Nato are patrolling the streets, providing security for the return of refugees and the slow process of reconstruction to begin. The old tourist haunt of Chicken Street, where you could buy anything from a carpet to precious lapis lazuli gemstones, is firmly open for business once again, with merchants keen to cash in on the influx of foreign workers who have flooded into Kabul since the fall of the Taliban.
A day’s drive from Kabul lies the Bamiyan valley. Nestled in the folds of the Hindu Kush, the valley was once home to two giant statues of Buddha carved from the sandstone cliffs. The largest of their kind in the world, they stood for 1600 years and were marvelled at by pilgrims from China and India and, less than 30 years ago, another type of traveller making pilgrimages to the site, the jewel in Afghanistan’s tourism crown.
In March 2001 they were dynamited in the Taliban’s iconoclastic fury, but the empty niches still dominate the valley. Even absent, they continue to evoke a powerful aura, and the people of Bamiyan know their worth as a potential tourist destination. Many locals want to rebuild the statues, despite the expense and the disapproval of Unesco.
On a bluff on the opposite side of the valley, is the Bamiyan Hotel. Over tea, manager Abdul Khalil talks about his 33 years working at the hotel. We would have 150 or 200 people a night staying here,” he says, recalling the mid-1970s. “People came from all over the world to visit Bamiyan.”
Old photos show groups of happy tourists relaxing on deck chairs at the hotel, but Khalil isn’t content to hark back to a golden age – he’s confident tourists will return to Bamiyan. Labourers are working hard to finish new rooms, and a hot water system has just arrived from Pakistan. A high wall surrounds the compound. “It must be knocked down because it blocks the view of the valley,” says Khalil. “That’s no good for tourists.”
Those tourists are already beginning to creep back. In Herat, Afghanistan’s westernmost city and a stop on the old Silk Road, one hotel is already catering to a number of backpackers. Rooms look out to the Friday Mosque, a dazzling building covered in gorgeous mosaic tiles, easily rivalling anything comparable in Samarkand, Esfahan or Istanbul. Miraculously, it survived civil war and Soviet carpet bombing unscathed.
Where intrepid backpackers tread, tour groups follow. Matthew Leeming, who’s been visiting Afghanistan since the early 1990s, has led several recent trips to the country in conjunction with the Afghan Ministry of Tourism. “I started TravelAfghanistan to help Afghans help themselves,” Leeming says. “The country’s amazing natural beauty and hospitality are tremendous assets. The reaction from tourists was overwhelmingly positive – I think they all want to go back.”
But safety remains a major hurdle for enticing visitors back to Afghanistan. The UK Foreign Office continues to advise against non- essential travel to the country, but things are slowly improving. “Security in the country has always been better than it was perceived in the media,” Leeming says. “The presidential election [in October 2004] has greatly improved things, showing the Taliban are a busted flush.”
Back in Herat, I drop by the offices of the Afghan Tourist Organisation. Things are a little dusty, but the staff are eager to help. There’s talk of developing the Tora Bora caves – scene of a major US offensive against Osama bin Laden – as a tourist attraction. On the wall hangs a poster proudly proclaiming 1967 as Afghanistan’s Year of Tourism. The slogan chosen to promote Afghanistan reads: ‘Tourism – Passport to Peace.’ Cambodia and Lebanon are countries that have come through terrible civil wars and are now popular tourist destinations. Can Afghanistan take that next step?”