What now for Afghan tour guides? | Travel

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Mohammed has spent more than a decade guiding tourists through the Wakhan Corridor, an isolated strip of mountainous land that is part of a national park in Badakhshan province in northeastern Afghanistan. He regularly led the ascents of Noshaq, Afghanistan’s highest peak, traversing 7,492m (24,580ft) to the summit and back down to the valley in 17 days. He enjoyed showing visitors from all over the world the snow-capped mountains, roamed by snow leopards, brown bears and lynx.

Mohammed has worked as a mountaineering guide for international travel agencies and also started his own travel agency. He liked meeting people. “There were a lot of different experiences and cultures coming together,” he says.

Tourism in Afghanistan peaked in the 1970s, with visitor numbers reaching around 90,000 per year, before the The country was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1979. Many of these travelers were hippies on the land trail, seeking enlightenment and hashish, but they and others were also drawn to the pristine landscapes and warm hospitality. A planet alone A travel book from this time describes the country as “very attractive”, with the only security problem being bandits.

Central Blue Mosque in Herat

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Tourism plummeted again after the Taliban seized power in 1996, but since the late 2000s it had slowly increased, with the help of a small group of Afghan tour operators and guides like Mohammed, determined to counter the images of conflict and poverty associated with their country. Instead, they wanted to show travelers its rich cultural history and natural beauty, like the deep blue lakes of Band-e Amir in the foothills of the Hindu Kush.

James Willcox, co-founder of Untamed Borders, a small British adventure travel company that employed eight Afghan tour guides, says a growing number of people want to visit less typical tourist countries like Afghanistan. “However, the security situation was getting worse every year,” he added.

When the Taliban regained control in August last year, Mohammed lost his only source of income. He is not alone. “More than 100 people made a living from tourism, including drivers, guides, cooks and guesthouse staff,” he said from Kabul.

He has some savings, but is trying to find another job to support his family – not an easy task as the economy has nearly collapsed. more than half a million people have lost their jobs or been forced out since the Taliban took power.

But it’s not just the lack of income that worries tourism workers still in Afghanistan. “Low-level Taliban members believe that foreigners and anyone who has worked with foreigners are infidels, and they hate them and want to kill them,” says Bashir, 32, who worked as a tour guide and general manager of a house of hosts.

Bashir was hiding at a friend’s house when he spoke to me shortly after the Taliban took over after receiving threats from the group. He is now in Pakistan, awaiting documents to go abroad with his family. He said that a few months ago the Taliban tortured him in a prison before letting him go. He believes he was persecuted because he previously worked for the Afghan government.

The guesthouse that Bashir ran closed recently, after operating for almost two decades, regularly welcoming tourists. It employed more than 20 people. “It’s extremely difficult for them – and for me – right now,” he says. ” I am unemployed. Whatever savings I had, I shared with my colleagues and close friends. He knows people who cannot afford to eat. According to the United Nations World Food Programme, 22.8 million people, more than half of the population, face acute food insecurity.

Although Mohammed has not received any direct threats, he says there are people who know of his work and who could report him to the Taliban. He is also a member of the Ismaili ethno-religious minority, which belongs to the Shiite branch of Islam and has been oppressed for centuries. The majority of Afghans, including the Taliban, are Sunni Muslims. “In public, there are no cases of persecution, although we receive daily reports and videos of such incidents,” he said. He recently saw a video of an elderly Ismaili man from Badakhshan being “bullied and beaten by the Taliban”. Mohammed keeps a low profile and only goes out to buy the essentials.

Band-e Amir Lake in Bamiyan

Band-e Amir Lake in Bamiyan

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Willcox estimates that there are around 100 tourism workers who could be targeted by the Taliban because of their links to international entities. Untamed Borders has partnered with several other companies – including Secret Compass and Soviet Tours – to appeal to fund their transportation to safe areas, support their relocation and daily living expenses, and provide visa sponsorship. of refugees.

Abdullah, who started working as a tour guide in 2015, is among those who have benefited. His favorite place to show visitors was Bamiyan in central Afghanistan – where the Taliban destroyed two 6th-century Buddha statues in 2001 – and he fears violent reprisals. “We put our lives on the line to keep travelers safe here and show them our country,” he says. He is worried because people know him from social media and he was detained by the Taliban right after Kabul’s last fall.

Afghanistan is now “like a prison”, he says. “[The Taliban] have not changed. They are very brutal. Many women remain in hiding, while others have been found dead, their bodies riddled with bullets, after being abducted by the group.

The company Abdullah worked for tried to put him on the evacuation list, but since he had not worked for foreign governments, it was difficult to prove that he was in danger. “I’m still trying, and other friends from abroad are also trying to get me a visa,” he says. In the meantime, the only job he finds is as fixer for journalists.

Fatima Haidari, Afghanistan’s first female tourist guide, was one of the few female tourism workers to manage to escape in the days after the Taliban took over. She had been working as a freelance tour guide since January 2020 – despite protests from her family – showing sights such as the central Blue Mosque in her hometown of Herat. “I was very happy to connect Afghanistan to the world; I could show the positive sides of the country from a woman’s perspective,” she says from northern Italy, where she is seeking asylum.

Now safe, she dreams of training young women to follow in her footsteps as a tour guide. “It will take time, but I can adapt,” she says. “I fought for these achievements in Afghanistan.”

Some names and identifiable elements have been changed. To donate to the fundraiser, see fundly.com

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