Are the Taliban using tourism to shed the tag of ‘pariah state’?


Afghanistan.

In recent times it conjures images of warfare, crippling poverty and horrors perpetrated against women and minorities by a repressive regime.

But in a play for legitimacy in the eyes of the rest of the world, the Taliban, which returned to power in 2021, is looking to reignite the nation’s tourism industry.

The Taliban claims tourist numbers are on the rise, boasting a 120 per cent increase year-on-year to welcome more than 5,000 travellers in 2023.

It’s a development watched closely by Southern Cross University academic Dr Mujib Abid, who said tourism was viewed as a pathway to legitimacy and economic self-sufficiency within the “pariah state”.

“It has, by the looks of it, invested rather heavily or remarkably, including even opening a tourism and hospitality institute in Kabul and publicly welcoming tourists from far and wide to the country,” Dr Abid said.

Despite government advice to the contrary, some Australians are taking up the invitation.

‘People happy to see foreigners’

A man kisses a woman on the side of her head.

Arran and Imogen, pictured here in Tibet, rode motorbikes through Afghanistan.(Instagram: barstooladventures_)

In the past 12 months, Brisbane couple Arran and Imogen have been riding motorbikes through Asia, where they heard other travellers’ positive experiences of visiting Afghanistan.

“Talking to people that have gone, and seeing all of the rich history that the country has, and how it’s recovering after the recent wars, it’s something that we thought we really wanted to do while we had the opportunity,” Imogen told 7.30.

After some early nerves — Australia does not have diplomatic representation in Kabul, a reality that left the couple feeling initially “isolated” — their 10-day journey across Afghanistan went off without a hitch, taking in stunning landscapes and enjoying local hospitality as they rode their way through to Europe.

Two men with beards wearing khaki uniforms.

Arran snapped this photo at a Taliban checkpoint in Kabul.(Supplied)

“It’s really, really eye-opening to drive through these areas and see people living in the remnants of war, but just inviting us in for tea,” Arran said.

“Whoever is in control of Afghanistan, that doesn’t encompass the whole population … there’s a whole group of people, women and children and fathers, husbands that just want to be Afghan and just want to show that their culture is one of the best in the world.”

A landscape in Afghanistan

Afghanistan has plenty of natural beauty, including the remains of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, but travel to the country comes with risks.(Supplied.)

Imogen said she was generally met with curiosity as a woman on a motorbike.

“I had poor experiences in other countries where I felt a lot more unsafe than I did in Afghanistan,” she said.

“People are really happy to see foreigners around, they’re really happy to see new people around, and generally, they were really kind to us.”

Lure of social media

A man sits on a rock in the snow.

Tour operator James Willcox says there’s been growing interest in Afghanistan.(Supplied)

James Willcox has been running tours in Afghanistan with his UK-based company Untamed Borders since 2008. He said while it was difficult to compare bookings from recent years, given the regime change and COVID, 2023 was one of his company’s busiest yet.

He said their customers were diverse but were usually English-speaking and well-travelled. He attributed part of the recent rise in interest to travel bloggers on social media showing a different perspective on the country.

“[Twenty years ago] if there wasn’t a Lonely Planet, or a Rough Guide, then certain parts of the world were seen only where journalists and documentary makers and professional people went, and I think that’s changed,” Mr Willcox said.

Fatima Haidari was a tour guide with Untamed Borders until the Taliban took Kabul in 2021.

She’s believed to have been the only woman who was guiding at that time.

“There were days I was afraid, I was scared, but I think nothing could have stopped me because one part of the job I was doing was so good and joyful,” she said.

A woman stands in front of a mosque.

Fatima Haidari was a tour guide in Afghanistan until the Taliban returned to power.(Supplied)

As a high-profile woman, having appeared in international media, the now-25-year-old felt she had to leave Afghanistan for her safety once the Taliban returned to control.

She now offers virtual tours from her new home in Italy, with part of the proceeds supporting girls’ education in her home country, and has mixed feelings about tourists visiting her homeland.

She said she did not want Afghanistan and its people to be isolated from the rest of the world, but did not support tourists posing for photos with Taliban or otherwise softening the image of the regime by claiming they have made the country safer.

A woman sitting for a meal with two men.

Fatima left Afghanistan for her safety and now lives in Italy.(Supplied)

“I have friends who have been [in Taliban prisons] but once they’re released they’re not OK, and I know, for example, women who have been even killed there,” she said.

“Tourists who go there … I think it’s good, but trying to normalise Taliban is somehow betraying all the people out there in Afghanistan who suffer from [the] presence of Taliban.”

Dr Abid, an Afghan-Australian, said the issue was complex.

“From the perspective of Afghans, you can see why there is immense value in [tourists visiting Afghanistan],” he said.

“There is a need for them to see another side of the world outside Afghanistan, one that is a foreign face that is not holding an M16 and running around in an armoured vehicle.”

But he added tourists enjoyed freedoms not given to all local people.

“The Taliban have passed edicts that bar women from entering parks and picnic areas, including the Band-e Amir National Park, and there’s something quite violent and contradictory in there about what our visit could potentially mean for the status, for the wellbeing and for the prospects for liberation of Afghan women,” Dr Abid said.

Australian tourist shot

Three men smile in Kabul.

Joe McDowell was travelling with a tour group in Afghanistan when he was shot.(Supplied)

The Department of Foreign Affairs’ Smart Traveller website is clear: the Australian government warns against travel to Afghanistan, and with no Australian officials in the country, its ability to provide assistance is “severely limited”.

The warning gave West Australian Joe McDowell pause for thought after booking a tour to the country — but, he reasoned, it also urged caution when travelling to places like Dubai and the UK, which he considered relatively safe.

His friends weren’t so sure.

“The unanimous response to the comment, ‘I’m going to Afghanistan,’ was pretty much, ‘Why are you going?’ and ‘Are you crazy?'” Mr McDowell said.

“I know that it’s just come out of war only three years ago … a lot of people would think that that’s strange, but that’s also part of the reason I wanted to go: because it’s a strange place, it’s different.”

His 10-day tour started last month in the capital, Kabul, where his 17-person group toured mosques and markets. On day two, they wound their way to the city of Bamiyan, which was home to historic statues of Buddha before they were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

A road with low buildings on either side.

The market in Bamiyan where Joe was shot.(Supplied)

The group was at a market having photos taken for national parks passes when a gunman opened fire on them.

Mr McDowell said it took time for his brain to catch up to what was happening, initially processing the gunshots as firecrackers or something solid falling on the market floor.

“I just ran away, and as I was running away I felt something slap my ass, and then I looked around to see he was still standing about three or four metres away from our car where he was shooting it,” Mr McDowell said.

Bleeding, he took cover beneath the car, the gunman’s feet next to his face.

“It was at that point that I’d had a few seconds for the brain to catch up, but I sort of felt like this is it, I’ve got no more moves here,” Mr McDowell said.

“I’m trapped. I’m stuck. And if he bends down and shoots under the car, I can’t run, I can’t move.

“Fortunately, for whatever reason, he didn’t squat down.”

Six people were killed and at least five others injured in the attack, which was later claimed by Islamic State. After a stay in a Kabul hospital, Mr McDowell returned home to Perth, where he is recovering well.

He did not rule out a return to Afghanistan in the future but said the “weird weekends” were on the backburner until the pain subsided.

“I don’t know if it changes my perception of Afghanistan,” Mr McDowell said.

“I was hoping to go there to get a bit of a better feel for Afghanistan, a feel for the Taliban, a feel for the local people.”

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