Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Wanted: Tourists for Iraq and Afghanistan!

You really can’t blame them for trying. Poor countries. The Dollar and the Pound and the Euro look good. Are good for their economy.

Both Iraqi and Afghan government tourist pooh-bahs is are encouraging travel in their countries, regardless of ongoing conflicts. Granted, eight of us got through Iraq in March 2009, the first Western travelers since 2003. And it’s gone to their heads - more tours are planned with both British and, believe it or not, Taiwanese tour operators.

Admittedly, the Iraqi’s State Ministry for Tourism and Antiquities have been encouraging travel into the country irrespective of bombings and blastings, but it’s been the Iranian Shias, who honor the sacred shrines in Karbala and Najaf. But there is a difference between managing the religious pilgrim and the Western tourist. Martyrdom is not part of our lexicon. Our expectation to to arrive, see some of the country and its people and then, survive - leaving in one piece.

And that did happen with us. But there was little help from the Ministry in providing opportunities to visit significant sites, ones not problematic security-wise: eg: despite several opportunities, our group was not allowed in the newly opened Museum in Baghdad. And we had to fight to get into Ur, located between two military bases.

Originally, we were to have two Security people,then a carload of guys, then nada! Nada was better for our mini van wasn’t that conspicuous - except when local authorities gave us front and back protection with sirens going full blast.

I must admit the Iraqi took every opportunity to publicize tour travel: media at Babylon, media in our bus, media at the Baghdad hotel: they loved idea of tourism but really didn’t know or want to know how to deal with the reality. The best reception our group had was at Basra with several local Tourist representatives who escorted us throughout that area. What the National Ministry coulda, shoulda and didn’t do.

Now Afghanistan: Several months after I’d returned from Kabul in March 2008, there was an article in the SF Chronicle, heralding the opening of a national park at the Band-i-Amir lakes in Bamiyan province. Apparently, the Aga Khan Foundation is creating an ecotourism project in the area. In June 2009, there was a formal dedication of the park, per CNN. This is in the province where the Buddhist statutes were blown up in Taliban days.

Reportedly, it’s a three hour drive on rocky roads in a 4x4 so getting that should be an adventure in itself.

And there is also word someone is building a five star hotel in Kabul!

I’ll find out for I’m returning in August - which will be hot. dry and dusty! While I’ll return to Kabul briefly, I will be traveling on the old caravan routes to Herat, Mazar-i-Sherif, the Minaret of Djam, as well as Bamiyan province. I suspect I’ll see little of the Ministry of Culture’s minions and the media, but given my Iraqi experience, that will be for the best. Wandering around these fragmented countries, one needs to be as close to the ground as possible.

Surprisingly, there are five organizations booking travel in Afghanistan: two local, one Canadian and two British. All in the north; no one other than military should head down south. Kandahar and the Helmand province are way beyond dicey and no place for civilians. And the Afghan-Pakistan border is another hot spot. But north and central parts of the country have been relatively safe.

So I will have the opportunity to compare - and contrast - these two countries who want to be included on the world’s travel calendar.

(Other countries on my list to visit: North Korea, which which does not encourage visitors; Libya who is still mad at GW and won’t give US citizens visas, and Cuba, which welcomes tourists but it is the the US government which restricts access.. In fact, peaceful and stable Cuba is the only country where the US forbids US travel. Go figure!)

1 comment:

Asad A. Rizvi said...

You know, I've had the hardest time trying to find information on someone who has gone further than Kurdistan in Iraq. I'm planning on traveling to Baghdad and many of the southern cities this winter. Do you have any tips or suggestions? Any favorite places you visited?