Calling all tourists to Bamiyan

Breakfast is being prepared at the Abdul Hamid Hotel. The proprietor, Abdul Hamid, is rushing around with his helpers preparing a meal of unleavened Afghan bread and a thick white butter, and omelettes.

This is a popular breakfast stop, about two hours up from Bamiyan town into the hills on the way to the popular Band-e Amir lakes.

It is a modest establishment – perhaps not the type of hotel or restaurant that well-heeled travelers would want. But business is buzzing.

In the dining area, 15 young men are already devouring their feast. Others, including us, take their food to the rise across the road and eat al fresco.

If you want to be a tourist in Afghanistan you have to be ready for a huge adventure
Ivana Stipic Lah

There, we unexpectedly find ourselves eating next to the burnt-out shell of a tank – a reminder that Afghanistan is still an abnormal tourist destination.

The dirt road on which the hotel sits is perhaps the spine along which Afghan tourism will develop.

Relative security

Afghanistan has mountains galore, sweeping valleys, rushing rivers and deserts. And a culture thousands of years old.

And, in Bamiyan province, it now has relative security.

Two hours’ bumpy ride further on, we reach Band-e Amir – long ago declared Afghanistan’s first national park but only now being implemented as such.

These are six lakes with extraordinarily blue water, sitting under towering pink cliffs. Each lake is held up by a natural “dam” of limestone, and has a string of waterfalls tumbling out of it.

Band-e Amir lake

The lakes have extraordinary blue water

Today, on a Friday, there are several hundred tourists, nearly all of them Afghan. Some come from other parts of Bamiyan, others from further afield.

The brave plunge into the water, which is chilly here at 3,000 metres up.

Mohammed Ayub and his large family are spending the day here in their big tent.

They, like many others, have come because they believe the lakes have religious importance – an association with Hazrat Ali, an important descendant of the Prophet Mohammad.

“We can buy bread here, and hire boats,” he says. But they bring all the rest of their food and a stove. He is happy.

More organization

Others, on the busier side of the lake where simple cafés serve meat and rice, are less content with the facilities.

They include almost the only foreigners to be seen, Ivana Stipic Lah from Croatia and her husband Samo Lah from Slovenia. They work in Kabul and have left the city as tourists for the first time.

“Someone has to build a road here,” says Samo. “And, let’s say, toilets. When we asked someone where we can find a toilet, he said ‘all around’!”

“It needs a little more organization,” Ivana agrees. She reflects that in parts of Bamiyan town they had been told they needed tickets but there was nowhere to buy them.

Tourists Ivana and Samo

Tourists say the facilities are poor

“If you want to be a tourist in Afghanistan you have to be ready for a huge adventure,” she adds, laughing.

Zahir, an Afghan usually resident in Belgium, is staying a few days here with his family and relatives. They have had a great time and caught a lot of fish. But he says things could be better.

“The accommodation is just a small house, no showers no lights, so it’s very poor,” he says.

“Of course, I would like to have proper toilets and proper kitchens, proper beds and proper home.”

Blunt talk

Asked where else he goes as a tourist in Afghanistan, he mentions the Blue Mosque in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, describing it as “fantastic”.

He would like to see Kandahar and the south, but says it’s probably not secure enough now.

Once back in Bamiyan town, I climbed a steep fortress – part of an old ruined Muslim city with fantastic views over the valley, including the remains of the 6th-century Buddhist statues destroyed by the Taleban.

My companion on the walk, Amir Fuladi, is a local development expert drawing up a tourism blueprint for the government to consider.

Amir Fuladi

Mr Fuladi says local people need to be more focused

He speaks bluntly about Bamiyan as it is today, saying the roads are not good, there are few good hotels and people simply do not know how to receive tourists.

“The quality of services is really bad,” he says. “There is no information centre. There is no guide.”

Mr Fuladi says local people need to develop a more commercial attitude – more focused on making a profit.

He is recommending that these pitfalls be gradually rectified, and tourism developed with social care.

“The majority of the benefits should go to the poor families or the local people,” he says.

He is recommending that any newly-built hotel should have a fixed quota of local employees and use local materials and foods.

“And then, people who want to invest, they can come.”

But he is also concerned that the environment be protected.

On a recent visit to Band-e Amir he was shocked to see cars driving onto the fragile limestone rocks, a vehicle being washed in the lake, and a lot of rubbish. This, he says, must change.

Bamiyan Province has all the natural and cultural potential for tourism. Now, hotels must be built and more roads constructed, as people learn to use local products and resources to increase its attractions.

What would be best of all to bring in the tourists would be for security to take a grip around the country, not just in Bamiyan.

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