Afghans look for new ways to share their culture far from home

After fleeing the Taliban takeover, pioneering tour guides hope to continue promoting Afghanistan’s rich heritage.

By Robyn Huang, Matthew Reichel
photographs by Matthew Reichel
Published 20 Sept 2021, 10:27 BST
Band-e-Amir National Park
Afghanistan‘s Band-e-Amir National Park is one of the places that Afghan tour guides promoted in peacetime. After the Taliban’s recent government takeover, many travel operators joined hundreds of thousands of Afghans who fled the country in fear for their safety.
Photograph by Matt Reichel

For years, Noor Ramazan and a small, tight-knit community of several dozen tour guides and drivers in Afghanistan have introduced travellers during peacetime to the natural and historic wonders of a country better known for decades of war and upheaval

“We just wanted people to understand that there are positive aspects to the country,” says Ramazan.

In better times, Afghanistan has offered visitors striking natural beauty and an array of experiences from the snow-capped Pamir and Hindu Kush mountains to dazzling Islamic architecture, historical monuments, and food, textiles, crafts, and hospitality at the intersection of Pashtun, Persian, Hazara, and Turkic cultures. 

But after the cataclysmic events of mid-August—the violent takeover by the Taliban and rapid collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government—Ramazan and many other tour operators were among hundreds of thousands of Afghans who fled the country in fear for their safety.

“Historically, the Taliban have never really understood tourism. They considered tourists to be infidels, and guides to be slaves of infidels,” says Ramazan. “So, tour guides are in danger.”

Guide Noor Ramazan wraps himself in a scarf and patu, an Afghan blanket, to protect himself from the cold winter winds of the mountainous Bamyan province.
Photograph by Matt Reichel
Two Hazara shepherds tend to their flock around Mirsha Khuja Mountain in rural Bamyan. Ramazan would often lead tours that would include meeting locals going about their daily lives.
Photograph by Matt Reichel

A nascent tourism industry

Before starting his tour company, Let’s Be Friends Afghanistan, in 2016, Ramazan was a security officer for an American nongovernmental organisation (NGO) working on agricultural projects in northern Afghanistan. He found himself convincing wary expat colleagues to visit tourist sites like the Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif, as a way for them to get to know the country beyond office compound walls. To ensure their safety, Ramazan would implement the same procedures as at the NGO, placing calls to the local police several times to get updates on security prior to any visit.

By 2016, he decided he wanted to pursue tourism full time. At first, he says, he only signed up one or two clients per year. But after he was discovered by a string of social media travel influencers, his client base grew to around 200 a year by 2020, despite travel advisories from many governments warning of conflict, kidnapping, and terrorism.

Ramazan offered guided tours of historic mosques and citadels in major cities from Herat to Kandahar. And he provided a glimpse into daily life by arranging meet-ups with artisans, street photographers, and teachers. Popular YouTubers, including Yes Theory and Drew Binsky, shared videos of trips around the country with Ramazan, with views reaching into the millions.

He began partnering with other independent local guides across the country for on-the-ground support, including Bamyan-based professional skier and trekking guide Sajjad Husaini, a 2022 Olympic hopeful. Husaini brought travellers on mountain treks and homestays with local families around Bamyan and Daykundi, another northern province with dramatic landscapes. He also organised skiing and cycling tours.    

In this 2019 photo, an Afghan family looks out onto Kabul, Afghanistan‘s capital, from a viewpoint on Bibi Mahru hill.
Photograph by Matt Reichel
Mud brick homes line the golden hills around Bamyan city, which was designed to blend in with the natural color of the landscape.
Photograph by Matt Reichel
Afghanistan’s first national park, Band-e-Amir, comprises turquoise blue lakes nestled in the Hindu Kush mountains. It is a popular tourist location for locals, who enjoy walking along the shores, dining at barbecue stands, and hiking around the lakes.
Photograph by Matt Reichel

Even as the political situation in Afghanistan deteriorated through this past May and June, Ramazan says he was still receiving queries from prospective clients, some saying it might be their last opportunity to visit the country for a while. Afghanistan was one of the few countries to remain open to tourists throughout the pandemic.

Afghanistan enjoyed a golden age of tourism in the 1970s, before the country was beset by decades of conflict. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, an average of 90,000 tourists a year visited sites such as the sixth-century Buddha statues at Bamyan (which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001), the soaring Minaret of Jam, and Kabul’s lively Chicken Street bazaar.

But the Soviet invasion of 1979 kicked off more than 40 years of war and unrest, effectively destroying Afghanistan’s place on the global hippie trail to India. The government-reported figure of 15,000-20,000 tourists in 2013 is likely inflated, since it includes visas issued to aid workers and journalists.

Changing perceptions

Before Ramazan helped popularize Afghan tourism on social media, Gul Hussain Baizada founded one of the first post-Taliban tour companies in Afghanistan, Silk Road Afghanistan & Travel, in 2011. He has since welcomed approximately 3,000 clients to the country. He believes in the power of community-based tourism to create jobs for locals, and in doing so, boost Afghanistan’s economy. Over time he even recruited Afghanistan’s only female tour guide, Fatima Haidari.

Baizada’s inspiration for jumpstarting Afghan tourism came when he was working for the Aga Khan Foundation in 2009. That same year, he was sent to Nepal on a reconnaissance trip to observe sustainable ecotourism initiatives in the popular trekking nation. Upon his return, he was tasked with developing Afghanistan’s first ski program, in the eastern mountainous Bamyan province of the country.      

He encountered resistance in finding sponsors for the first group of female skiers. However, following his wife’s participation and recruitment efforts among the community, women’s athletics gradually blossomed into a point of pride for the people of Bamyan. Other sports and community-based tourism programs soon followed, including trekking, cycling, climbing, and ski tours.

“In Bamyan, tourism came and completely changed the way of life,” says Baizada. “Before, Bamyan was more conservative than other areas. But now, you can see people are easygoing and accepting. Families are open-minded. This all came from tourism.”      

Afghan visitors climb up the third-century Takht-e Rostam stupa, located outside the rural town of Haibak in Samangan province, in northern Afghanistan.
Photograph by Matt Reichel
Worshippers walk around the 15th-century Hazrat Ali Mazar ”Blue” Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif, just after Friday Maghrib (sunset) prayers.
Photograph by Matt Reichel

According to Husaini, Bamyan regained its status as a tourism oasis around 2012, when visitor numbers grew following increased security along the road from Kabul. This rugged region of mountains, lakes, and pastoral villages—along with the Wakhan Corridor, a small panhandle of Afghan territory separating Pakistan from Tajikistan—were considered secure enough to allow for genuine community-based tourism projects. 

“Tourist money hired many locals—from drivers and guides to women who work in the handicrafts sector—and [supported] shops and restaurants. We also rented homes from families, providing income for the community,” says Husaini. 

However, the security situation deteriorated by 2019, slowing tourist arrivals to Bamyan. “Road insecurity and unstable flights were the biggest problems,” laments Husaini.

More densely populated areas like Kabul, Kandahar, and Herat were not always considered safe for travellers; tour operators such as Ramazan and Baizada had to conduct extensive security checks.

Support and uncertainty

So what does the future hold for Afghan tourism? Ramazan and Baizada are trying to keep an open mind. “It’s too soon to judge,” says Ramazan. “Right now, I am not hopeful.” 

Baizada echoes Ramazan’s sentiments. “It’s difficult to say whether the Taliban will accept or reject tourism. If this is the Taliban in the ’90s, we have no hope,” he says. Baizada and Ramazan are ethnic Hazara, one of Afghanistan’s largest ethnic minority groups. Insurgent groups such as the Taliban have historically persecuted them for practicing Shiite Islam, a minority sect in Sunni-dominated Afghanistan, as well as for their Eurasian facial features and Persian-influenced cultural traditions.       

Ramazan and Baizada worry about their partners back in Afghanistan, guides and drivers without income stability and at risk of persecution by the Taliban for having worked with foreigners. Efforts are underway to help more of the community leave the country.

The international travel community has rallied around Afghan operators, offering help with submitting visa paperwork, fundraising, and moral support. A coalition of six boutique adventure travel operators has raised nearly $70,000 (£50,000) so far to help guides and their families relocate.

In the meantime, guides who got out are trying to adjust to their new lives away from home. Ramazan is in Australia, while Baizada, Husaini, and Haidari are in Italy.

Baizada says he hopes to develop hiking, cycling, and sports tourism programs run by Afghan refugees in Italy. Ramazan wants to open an Afghan culture house in Australia offering seminars on food, art, history, and culture.

He is especially adamant that Afghanistan is not forgotten. “We can keep this going. I want to continue talking about and showing Afghanistan even from far away.”

Robyn Huang is a Canadian journalist covering culture, gender issues, and mental health. Matthew Reichel is a Canadian journalist and documentary photographer covering the intersection of geopolitics, nature, and travel.


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