Coronavirus shatters tourism hopes in Afghanistan's Bamyan province

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Bamyan was on track to break its tourist record this year.

The central Afghan province of rugged mountains, clear lakes, historical sites and untouched nature offers a different perspective on a country known for poverty and war.

In Bamyan, there are no Taliban fighters and no land mines anymore.

Last year, as domestic flights from Kabul resumed, about 400,000 tourists – including 500 from abroad – flocked to the peaceful and adventurous vacation spot. An even larger number was expected this year. But then came the coronavirus pandemic.

A rural scene from Bamyan; an area where tourists come for trekking and camping and often stay in local villages. Stefanie Glinski for The National
A rural scene from Bamyan; an area where tourists come for trekking and camping and often stay in local villages. Stefanie Glinski for The National

“Zero. That’s how many people will come this season. These realities are hard. Thousands of residents depend on tourism here, and there’s little alternative,” said Abdullah Mahmoodi, the owner of Highland Hotel, a quaint and cosy guest house catering mainly to international travellers.

The hotel, in a newly built part of Bamyan city, can accommodate 11 guests in its five rooms, which cost between $40 and $60 per night. But as the first cases of Covid-19 appeared in the province a month ago and worldwide travel restrictions kicked in, two tour operators cancelled dozens of bookings for foreign visitors at Mr Mahmoodi’s guest house.

Afghanistan’s confirmed coronavirus cases have passed 1,400, with just a handful in Bamyan, but with limited testing capacity in the country, the actual number of people infected is suspected to be much higher. With the capital put on lockdown, commercial flights to Bamyan were cancelled in mid April and roads in and out of the province closed; the last flight from Kabul – a 25-minute journey – brought only five passengers. None of them were tourists.

Mr Mahmoodi employs 12 staff at the hotel and runs a restaurant in the town’s centre. “I’m continuing to pay my staff half of their salaries, but this is hard. Besides that, we have contracts with butchers and grocers and also co-ordinate with locals in remote villages to organise accommodation during treks. Everyone depends on the tourists, but this year they won’t come.”

There won’t be any business this year and thousands of people will suffer

Ali Shah Farhang, ski club manager

Poverty has been on the rise in Afghanistan as jobs disappeared and food prices soared since the Covid-19 outbreak began. Beggars line the streets of urban centres; daily labourers struggle to find work. The virus arrived amid an ongoing dispute between President Ashraf Ghani and his political rival Abdullah Abdullah over the September presidential election, and halting progress towards direct peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

“The tourism income will be hard to recover. The sector has been developing and booming and has brought opportunities and financial stability to about 25,000 people,” said Muhammad Tahir Zaheer, the governor of Bamyan.

Tourism had become the province’s second biggest industry after agriculture, he said.

Bamyan has come a long way since 2001, when the Taliban blew up its famous Buddha statues, a Unesco world heritage site that is currently under restoration. In 2009, Afghanistan’s first national park, Band-e-Amir, was established in the province – 613 square kilometres of clear blue lakes and deep canyons nestled in the Hindu Kush mountains at an altitude of about 3,000 metres. Most recently, the province’s mountainous terrain has become a hub for trekking, camping and adventure and winter sports, including mountain biking and ice-climbing.

“In Band-e-Amir, we have taught tourism principles to 14 villages and we also constructed picnic areas and campsites. Tourism was up and coming, and a lot of people started to rely on it,” said Ebrahim Abrar, field project manager with the Wildlife Conservation Society, an international NGO. “Tourism is an important alternative livelihood. It essentially means that people are using less natural resources and are cutting fewer trees. If this continues, the tourism industry can even save biodiversity,” he said.

Bamyan draws outdoors lovers, historians and families alike, with the province’s safety and laid-back atmosphere appealing to many. Most of the locals are Hazara people, an ethnic minority in Afghanistan that continues to face widespread discrimination.

On a hill above Bamyan town’s centre, with a panoramic view of what is left of the Buddha statues, said Ali Shah Farhang, 29, sits in his office in a mud-walled compound with rooms full of skiing and camping equipment.

Mr Farhang has been running the province’s ski club since 2011. Earlier this year, he helped to stage the 10th annual ski challenge, drawing in thousands of visitors and dozens of participants, and was preparing for the summer’s hiking and trekking season.

About 80 per cent of Bamyan’s mountains are accessible for skiing and other sports, he pointed out proudly before he suddenly went quiet.

“We’re done for,” he said finally. “There won’t be any business this year and thousands of people will suffer.”

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Mr Farhang admitted to mostly staying at home these days, wondering how he would support his wife and two children through the difficult times.

“We had big plans to set up ecotourism programmes but we have to rethink our strategy now,” he said, sorting through skiing equipment stacked up in one of the rooms.

“People are afraid to travel and due to the coronavirus, everyone should stay at home,” Mr Zaheer told The National. “Hotels and historic sites have already closed and there’s currently no date when these will open again.”

After a long winter, everyone was getting ready to welcome visitors

Abdullah Mahmoodi, hotel owner

Plans for the province had been different. Negotiations with international airlines could have seen a direct connection from Dubai, easing travel for international tourists hoping to avoid transiting through the more violent capital Kabul.

Although Bamyan is safe, the three-hour drive from the capital is not. “The Taliban continues to bother people on the way,” Mr Zaheer said.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, flights to Bamyan on Afghan carrier Kam Air, the only airline servicing the province, were usually fully booked. It is not yet certain when the service will resume.

“After a long winter, everyone was getting ready to welcome visitors – from hotels in the city to rural villagers helping to organise cultural tours,” said Mr Mahmoodi. “Instead of the people, the coronavirus came – and if it doesn’t kill us, it certainly will kill many people’s businesses.”

Updated: April 26, 2020 12:50 PM

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