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War tourism in Afghanistan: Once-in-a-lifetime adventure or needless risk?

Over 20,000 people visited the Afghan city of Kabul last year.

THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE are fleeing the conflict-ridden Afghanistan, but American backpacker John Milton recently made the reverse journey to the war-ravaged country – for a holiday.

Armed with little more than travel guidebooks and an unflagging spirit of adventure, bands of “war tourists” such as Milton visit Afghanistan’s pristine mountains and medieval ruins every year, ignoring warnings of kidnappings and bombings.

“Visiting conflict zones and off-the-beaten-path destinations is so much more rewarding than the usual global tourist destinations,” says Milton, a 46-year-old former investment banker, who visited Afghanistan in June and has also vacationed in Somalia and North Korea.

(My) family and friends think I am a fool to take such risks but… if you are not willing to risk the unusual, then you will have to settle for the ordinary. I just don’t want to die without having any scars!

Danger

The dangerous situation was thrown into sharp focus after a Taliban attack on a group of American and European tourists last week, which left some of them wounded.

A tourist bus carrying eight Britons, three Americans and one German national came under Taliban fire as it was being escorted through a volatile district in Herat by the Afghan army.

shutterstock_340736690 (1) Citadel of Herat, Afghanistan Source: Shutterstock

The attack, which left seven people wounded, including the Afghan minibus driver, prompted scorn on social media, with many questioning why the tourists were travelling overland at a time when most Western embassies warn their citizens against all travel to the country.

‘Few would come for bragging rights’

But warzone tourism is hardly limited to Afghanistan.

In 2013, Japanese trucker Toshifumi Fujimoto, bored with his humdrum job, travelled to the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo.

Such tourists are the exception rather than the norm, said James Willcox, founder of an England-based adventure travel operator Untamed Borders, which organises trips to Afghanistan, Somalia and Somaliland.

“One of the main reasons people come on our trips… is to (see) countries for the multi-faceted, complex places they are. We do not choose destinations because they are dangerous,” Willcox says.

Very few would come because of bragging rights in my opinion. Most people are not impressed by someone having visited Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is endowed with stunning landscapes and archaeological sites, with many are located in areas plagued by insurgency. But a few areas are safely reachable by air.

The ancient city of Bamiyan, famous for empty hillside niches that once sheltered giant Buddha statues that were blown up by the Taliban, is one of them.

shutterstock_380234278 Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan Source: Shutterstock

The central province, a landscape of russet-hued cliffs, was once a caravan stop along the fabled Silk Road and is currently at the centre of Afghan efforts to boost tourism revenue.

The northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, famous for its blue-tiled mosque and Panjshir Valley, known for its snow-capped peaks and precious stones, are some other relatively peaceful areas.

shutterstock_217578697 Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan Source: Shutterstock

‘Worth the risk’

“Yes, (Afghanistan) is a risky destination but it’s a calculated risk,” says Milton.

If done properly then the risks can be mitigated quite well and the rewards greatly outweigh the risks – access to a country and culture that not many people get to experience.

The Afghan culture ministry says that tourism is vital to Afghanistan’s future.

“Afghanistan desperately needs foreign tourists,” says ministry spokesman Haroon Hakimi, adding that 20,000 foreigners visited Kabul last year.

The economy is in shambles and this is an important source of revenue.

Jonny Blair, a 36-year-old Irish backpacker, says he was undaunted by the violence.

“My lasting memory of Afghanistan was playing football with children by the Buddha monastery in Samangan (northern Afghanistan) (and) a night out drinking tea and smoking shisha (water pipe) in Mazari-Sharif,” he says.

It’s totally worth the risk.

© – AFP, 2016

Read: Cooking with poo: How one Thai village powers their cooking stoves using faeces

Read: A nutty way to make money – the Taliban are stealing pistachios in Afghanistan

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