Despite peace, economic woes keep Afghanistan's Bamiyan from becoming a tourist hub
Khalifa Mohammad Bamiyani has been driving passengers between Kabul and the central province of Bamiyan for more than 15 years.
In that time, he’s driven everyone from cautious families trying to travel as inconspicuously as possible to triumphant Taliban fighters on their way to declare victory after a brutal 20-year war against US occupation.
For much of that time, doing his job meant traversing two of Afghanistan’s most dangerous roads, where the possibility of being stopped at a Taliban checkpoint in either Maidan Wardak or Parwan province was extremely high.
"In 15 years, it’s never been this safe. As soon as the Taliban came to power all of the dangers on the roads ended"
Immediately after the Taliban’s return to power, Bamiyani returned to the streets in his Toyota station wagon to see what the roads would be like now that the forces that made them so unsafe were back in power.
Seeing that chaos had not descended on the country, he returned to work.
For 10 days he busied himself with ferrying people back and forth between Kabul and Bamiyan. Some were families like his, who had fled ahead of the Taliban’s arrival, others were reconnecting with family still in Bamiyan, and some, were even tourists, taking advantage of the sudden safety on the road to finally visit the historic province.
“In 15 years, it’s never been this safe. As soon as the Taliban came to power all of the dangers on the roads ended,” Bamiyani says.
That safety seems to have paid off for at least some Afghans.
In June, Mawlawi Abdullah Sarhadi, the provincial governor, told local media that 60,000 tourists had visited the province in three months’ time. At least 13,000 of them came during the three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday alone. That number was repeated during the Eid al-Adha holiday when a further 50,000 people travelled to the province in the week of Eid. Local authorities said thousands more came in the weeks following the second Eid holiday.
Like the thousands of drivers, hotel staff, restaurant workers, taxi drivers and shop owners whose livelihoods are largely impacted by tourism, Bamiyani had hoped the end of the 20-year war between the Taliban and the Western-backed forces of the former Islamic Republic would lead to a boom in tourism in their province.
But the past few months have been a mixed bag.
The roads are now safe and the city of Bamiyan has been trying for years to become more tourist-friendly. There is now a handful of higher-priced hotels — with rooms ranging between $25 and $100 — for more discerning visitors. For those on a budget, there are several lower-priced options, including tents near the six crystal blue lakes of Band-e Amir that rent for five dollars a night.
At the Band-e Amir National Park, local entrepreneurs and artisans, including women, have set up stands in a makeshift market leading to the Band-e Zulfiqar, the most famous of the lakes that comprise the park. There are even butchers and small restaurants for those who want to camp out overnight under the stars in the park.
"There is now a handful of higher-priced hotels — with rooms ranging between $25 and $100 — for more discerning visitors. For those on a budget, there are several lower-priced options, including tents near the six crystal blue lakes of Band-e Amir that rent for five dollars a night"
However, what no one saw coming were the massive economic setbacks that would be caused by a series of sanctions, aid cutbacks and withholdings of the Afghan Central Bank’s assets by Washington and other international powers.
“Everyone is hungry right now, that’s their first priority,” says Sayeed Enayatullah, a Bamiyan resident who is visiting Band-e Amir. Though Enayatullah said visitors now come from all over the country, it is nowhere near what the people had long hoped for.
In the past, families and visitors would come to Bamiyan and to Band-e Amir, but then they either had to take expensive flights (between $150 and $200 roundtrip) or had to contend with the dangers of potential Taliban checkpoints on the road, which was a major deterrent, especially for families.
The situation Enayatullah was hoping for was that Bamiyan would become like any other tourist capital in the world, with thousands of visitors to the city and the Band-e Amir park each day, respectively.
“There should be so many people here that you can’t find anywhere to stand,” he said of his vision for post-peace tourism.
Even with safety, Bamiyan has a long way to go to surpass, or even reach previous tourist records. In 2019, the then governor said that 100,000 visitors came to the province in a single week.
“It’s good, there is tourism, but it’s nothing like the heights we all predicted for the time when peace would finally come,” the 27-year-old says.
Enayatullah says most outside visitors to Band-e Amir this year have been first-timers, according to his conversations with them. He posits that one reason not as many people are coming in these tough economic times is that people who have been previously may not have the expendable income for repeat visits.
“When you’re out of work, who will spend the money to come back to somewhere they’ve already seen?”
One first-time visitor is Nik Mohammad, a 57-year-old originally from the Northern province of Badakhshan. Seeing the lakes of Band-e Amir have left him in awe.
“Look at this water, it flows like gold. This is God at work,” he says sitting on a bench only a few hundred meters from the turquoise blue waters of one of the six lakes. Mohammad says he considers himself fortunate to be able to live long enough to visit the national park.
“We have to take pride in the beauty of our country,” he says.
The newfound safety on the roads to Bamiyan is definitely an advantage for the average traveller from Kandahar or Balkh, Herat or Sar-e Pol province, but Bamiyani and other drivers say that newfound freedom has hurt their bottom line.
"Even with safety, Bamiyan has a long way to go to surpass, or even reach previous tourist records. In 2019, the then governor said that 100,000 visitors came to the province in a single week"
Now, they can comfortably come in their own cars.
But road conditions are still an issue, especially for visitors from the Southern and Western provinces. Highway 1, the 2,200-kilometre road that connects Kandahar and Herat to Kabul is in disrepair due to roadside attacks and the lack of repairs to the road. As such, visitors making the journey from Kandahar (600 kilometres) or Herat (700 kilometres), still have to contend with rocky, cracky unpaved roads for a considerable amount of the 11-hour car ride.
“These days, everyone can get in their car and travel here on their own, what do they need us for,” says Bamiyani. Recent statistics bear out Bamiyan’s assertion.
The Bamiyan Agricultural Department told local media that during the Eid al-Fitr holiday in May, at least 2,000 passenger vehicles passed through the entrance gate to the province. Though those cars are good for tourism in general, they are a blow to cab drivers who made their living transporting passengers between Kabul and Bamiyan and Bamiyan to Band-e Amir.
Bamiyani points to himself as an example. He says he hadn’t had a fare to Band-e Amir in nearly eight months. In the past, he would have made at least one or two trips a week to the lakes. The loss of those $29 fares is a big blow to his overall income.
He may not reap all the benefits of domestic tourism, but Bamiyani is still happy to see people visiting his province, especially those coming from as far away as the Southern province of Kandahar.
“Kandaharis are good people, they have a soft spot for hardworking people, which the people of Bamiyan are, and they’re just fun-loving, so it’s nice to see them enjoying themselves in our province,” Bamiyani says.
Additionally, drivers in the Sarai Pamir transit hub said that since thousands of former government workers in Bamiyan are now without jobs, many have turned to driving as a source of income, which means greater competition for those drivers who had been operating for years, if not decades.
Drivers are hurting from the rise in fuel prices. Petrol is currently hovering around 90 Afghanis or about one dollar per litre, which is almost double what it was a year ago. The ability of more people to drive on their own has also hurt the drivers’ pockets.
Other segments of Bamiyan society say they have benefitted from the uptick in tourism, even if it is not to the levels people had hoped for in the past. When a visiting family from Kabul asks Mansoor, a shop worker, where to have dinner because their high-priced hotel no longer provides dining services, he jumps at the chance to suggest another hotel.
“My family’s bakery provides them with bread, we get so many orders from them now, trust me, all kinds of people go there,” he says to the still confused family of a ministry worker in Kabul.
"Most visitors head to the ancient caves that housed the ancient Buddha statues that were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001"
When the family asks if they will allow them to come to dinner even if they are not guests, Mansoor says yes.
He reassures the family that the food is indeed both good and clean. He quietly tells the family that the hotel’s orders to his family’s bakery have doubled, even tripled, in recent months.
The bazaar where Mansoor’s shop sells water, off-brand sodas, snacks from Iran and Pakistan and other basic staples, hasn’t been renovated for years and many of the stores lack the name-brand products visitors from Kabul are used to, but shopkeepers say visitors often come to buy basic supplies they may have forgot to bring with them.
“As soon as they arrive, the first thing they do is head to Band-e Amir,” Mansoor says of the six lakes that were designated as Afghanistan’s first national park in 2009.
On the next day, most visitors head to the ancient caves that housed the ancient Buddha statues that were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Though the larger of the two Buddhas (called Salsal) has been closed for repairs for at least two years now, people will try to make time to explore inside the smaller one (called Shamama).
“People know the Buddhas are here in the city, so they want to get the hour-and-a-half drive to Band-e Amir out of the way first,” he says of most of his visiting customers’ itinerary.
Mansoor’s excitement is an example of how much people in Bamiyan, which has long been one of the poorest provinces in the nation, are looking for any way to increase their incomes at a time of unprecedented economic difficulties for the whole country.
Abdul Sabor Saighani, a spokesman for the Bamiyan provincial governor, told local media that the government is working to make Bamiyan more tourist friendly.
“Local officials of Bamiyan have been instructed to take effective steps to ramp up the tourism industry for domestic and foreign tourists,” Saighani told TOLO News in May.
Bamiyani, the driver, says most people in the province and the country as a whole, are currently living hand-to-mouth, “If I make 500 Afghanis, 400 of it goes immediately to feed my children, but I’m thankful to God that I can make even that much under these circumstances.”
Looking back at the last year, Bamiyani says he doesn’t know what the future holds for Afghanistan. As he puts it “the entire country came crashing down in half a day” on 15 August, but he is still hoping for the best.
Besides that, he lives his life with a single belief, “It’s just me, God and this car, that’s all I have in this life.”
Ali M Latifi is a Kabul-based freelance journalist. He has reported from Afghanistan, Qatar, Turkey, Greece and Washington, DC.
Follow him on Twitter: @alibomaye