The Taliban are focused on luring tourists to Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — About 30 men are crammed right into a classroom in Kabul, a part of the primary cohort of scholars at a Taliban-run institute that trains tourism and hospitality professionals.

It's a colourful group. A student is a model. Another is 17 years old and has no skilled experience.

The students differ in age, level of education and skilled experience. They are all men – Afghan women are only allowed to review from the sixth grade onwards – they usually don’t know about tourism or the hospitality industry. But all of them strive to present a unique side of Afghanistan. And the Taliban are completely happy to assist.

Afghanistan's rulers are pariahs on the world stage, largely due to their restrictions on women and girls. The economy is struggling, infrastructure is poor and poverty is widespread.

And yet foreigners are visiting the country, emboldened by the sharp decline in violence, the increasing air connections to hubs like Dubai and the bragging rights that include a vacation to an unusual destination. The numbers aren't huge – they never were – but Afghan tourism is on everyone's lips.

In 2021 there have been 691 foreign tourists. In 2022, that number increased to 2,300. Last yr there have been 7,000.

Mohammad Saeed, the top of Kabul's tourism directorate, said the most important foreign visitor market is China resulting from its proximity and huge population. Afghanistan also has benefits over a few of its neighbors.

“They told me they don't want to go to Pakistan because it is dangerous there and they are being attacked. The Japanese told me that too,” Saeed said. “That's good for us.”
But there are also disadvantages.

Access to visas is difficult and expensive. Many countries cut ties with Afghanistan after the Taliban returned to power, and no country recognizes them because the country's legitimate rulers.

Afghan embassies have either closed or suspended operations. There is an ongoing power struggle between Afghan embassies and consulates staffed by people from the previous Western-backed government and people under the total control of the Taliban government.

Saeed acknowledged that there are obstacles to the event of Afghan tourism, but said he’s working with ministries to beat them.

His ultimate goal is to get a tourist visa on arrival, but that would take years. There are problems with the road network, which is half paved or non-existent in some parts of the country, and airlines largely avoid Afghan airspace.

The capital Kabul has probably the most international flights, but no Afghan airport has direct connections to major tourist markets corresponding to China, Europe or India.

Despite the challenges, Saeed wants Afghanistan to grow to be a tourism powerhouse, a goal apparently supported by top Taliban leaders.

“I was sent to this department on the instructions of the elders (ministers). You must trust me because you sent me to this important place.”

The students even have wishes. Model Ahmed Massoud Talash desires to learn more concerning the picturesque places of Afghanistan for Instagram posts and his story for media appearances.

Samir Ahmadzai, a business school graduate, desires to open a hotel but thinks he should first know more about tourism and hospitality.

“You hear that Afghanistan is backward, there is poverty and everything is about war,” Ahmadzai said. “We have 5,000 years of history. There should be a new side of Afghanistan.”

Classes include Afghan crafts and basic anthropology.

An unofficial topic is the treatment of foreign women and the way their behavior or habits might conflict with local customs and regulations. Examples might include women smoking or eating in public, or freely associating with men who should not related to them by blood or marriage.

The Taliban have introduced a dress code for ladies and require them to have a male guardian, a mahram, when traveling. Eating alone, traveling alone and socializing with other women in public have grow to be harder. With gyms closed to women and wonder salons banned, there are fewer places for them to fulfill outside the house.

In an indication that the country is preparing to welcome more foreign visitors, the country's only five-star hotel, the Serena, has reopened its women's spa and salon to foreign women after a months-long closure.

Foreigners must present their passport to access the Services. Women with the note “born in Afghanistan” on their ID should not allowed to enter the country.

Shane Horan, the founding father of Rocky Road Travel, said a visit to Afghanistan shouldn’t be viewed as supporting a specific government or political regime.

“Ultimately, the aim should be to support responsible tourism practices that positively contribute to the local economy and promote mutual respect and understanding, while keeping in mind the broader political context in Afghanistan.”

He said there was no information from authorities about what tour groups saw or did and that the corporate worked closely with a women's rights organization in Afghanistan. A percentage of the tour costs went toward supporting that organization's programs, Horan added.

There aren’t any women on the Institute of Tourism & Hotel Management. The students don't mention it. But an official from the tourism directorate does.

“It’s a heartbreaking situation,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “Even female family members ask if they can study here. But with the change of government came a change in policy. The women who had studied before (the takeover) never came back. They never graduated.”

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