Afghan province hopes war can be tourism draw

By Katherine Haddon

BAZARAK, Afghanistan - A HOLIDAY in Afghanistan? It may not sound like an enticing prospect, but one province hopes that its history of warfare can help pull tourists in rather than put them off.

Panjshir, around 130 kilometres (80 miles) northeast of the capital Kabul, is dominated by the snow-capped mountains of the Hindu Kush, plunging valleys and a fast-flowing river which snakes through the middle.

It is also one of Afghanistan's most peaceful areas. Panjshiris, mainly ethnic Tajiks, pride themselves on having kept out the Taliban and repelled the Soviet Union after its 1979 invasion.

US and Afghan officials hope this history and natural beauty could bring visitors to Panjshir and boost its economy as it makes the transition to Afghan security control from July, amid fears that foreign aid could plunge.

"This is not going to be Afghan Disneyland, this is not going to be Sandals resort Jamaica, this is Panjshir and we need to develop a style of tourism which is unique to Panjshir," said Morgan Keay, a tourism specialist at USAID, the US government's aid agency, who is working in the area.

People involved acknowledge there is a long way to go before most foreigners can be persuaded that Panjshir is safe enough for them. "For any clients who contact us, this is the first question - is Afghanistan safe?" said Muqim Jamshady, CEO of Kabul-based travel company Afghan Logistics and Tours. "Of course it's very hard to convince clients."

Panjshir was the home of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the charismatic French-speaking anti-Taliban commander often credited with forcing out the Soviets but who was assassinated two days before the September 11, 2001 attacks.

His tomb in the province - surrounded by abandoned, rusting Soviet tanks and trucks - is being developed into a $10 million tourist attraction complete with mosque, library and conference centre.

Officials expect Massoud's legacy to act as a focal point for tourism, along with adventure activities such as mountain trekking and kayaking. Mohammad Sorab Marazi, an ex-mujahedeen fighter who is now governor of the province's Dara district, said: "As Panjshir is one of the resistance centres against the Soviets and Al-Qaeda, everyone in the world knows about it... that's why people should come here and see what type of place it is."

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