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Taliban says Afghanistan the ‘best place for tourists now’

Many countries, including Ireland, advise against travel to the impoverished region

Taliban-controlled Afghanistan was not part of the route that Tomás Mac an t-Saoir (29) had planned when he began a three-month cycling trip in India last November. But some seasoned travellers told Mac an t-Saoir that despite the militant and deeply conservative Taliban sweeping back to power in 2021, neighbouring Afghanistan was safe for foreigners “even on a bicycle”.

Before new year, the Kerry native paid $100 for a tourist visa, “no questions asked”, at the Afghan consulate in Peshawar in western Pakistan. A police escort then followed him along the mountainous Khyber Pass to the Torkham crossing that leads to Afghanistan. “At times in life, you just have to roll the dice and hope for the best outcome,” wrote Mac an t-Saoir in a WhatsApp message after crossing safely into Iran after four weeks of cycling the breadth of Afghanistan.

European countries including Ireland strongly advise against travel to the impoverished central Asian country where the Islamic State terror group continues to launch lethal attacks against Shia minorities and the Taliban. Several foreigners have also been detained by the Taliban including one Irish citizen in 2022. Last October four British citizens including Miles Routledge, a 23-year-old “danger tourist” and YouTuber, were released after several months of Taliban detention. Two of the men required hospitalisation for health conditions that had deteriorated while they were detained.

Despite stark warnings and difficulties with obtaining travel insurance, more than 2,000 tourists visited Afghanistan in November, according to the Afghan national statistics bureau. Several tour companies also operate organised trips.


Joe Sheffer, the British founder of travel company Sarafat, which offers trips to Afghanistan ranging from three to four nights to two weeks, says the security situation there rapidly improved once the Taliban retook control in 2021. Sheffer brings small groups of visitors to Helmand, where British troops were once concentrated as part of a Nato force supporting the then Afghan government against the Taliban insurgency. Helmand is familiar to the UK public because so many British soldiers died there, says Sheffer, who previously worked in Afghanistan as a journalist. He believes that bringing British people “without military uniforms” to meet locals in Helmand is beneficial for postwar Afghanistan.

Sheffer also arranges home stays with communities, providing an income boost of $150 (€138) for households amid dismal economic conditions. Sheffer estimates the wealthier households earn about $1,100 annually. Figures from the World Bank show the economy has contracted by 25 per cent since the Taliban’s return and Western states imposed economic sanctions. The agriculture, industry and services sectors are in decline, with deflation now further shrinking the fragile economy.

Foreign visitors in Afghanistan are closely monitored by the Taliban’s general directorate of intelligence, which has extensive networks reaching into rural towns and villages. While foreign women tourists have been granted significantly more freedom in the country than Afghan women and girls, they are required to wear a hijab and sometimes to be accompanied by a man in public. Some NGOs and activists have criticised foreign tourism to Afghanistan and online influencers sharing convivial images with the Taliban while Afghan women and journalists face violence and oppression.

But tourism is seen as one possible way for Afghanistan to attract much-needed foreign currency. During a visit to a 3,000-year-old fort in Helmand earlier this month, the acting Taliban minister of information and culture, Alhaj Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, said: “Afghanistan is the best place for tourists now” and that the ministry is trying “to solve the problems of tourists so that they can visit every part of Afghanistan in a good way”. Despite billions of dollars of aid and investment during the US occupation, the country’s infrastructure remains poor and underdeveloped. Mac an t-Saoir describes the highway he cycled on between the Afghan cities of Herat, Kandahar and Kabul as in “a terrible state”.

During his Helmand visit, Khairkhwa also announced that the Taliban had plans to restore historic sites in Afghanistan; while last September culture and arts minister Atiqullah Azizi said he hoped to secure Unesco world heritage status for Herat, a western city with some of Afghanistan’s finest examples of medieval Islamic architecture. The Taliban’s public vows to preserve Afghan heritage and overtures to tourists are a sharp contrast to the previous Taliban regime, which reigned before 2001 and blew up some of the world’s oldest and largest standing Buddhas, which were carved in cliffs edging the Bamiyan valley.

Hiromi Yasui, the Japanese owner of Hotel Silkroad in Bamiyan, welcomed two tour groups from Hong Kong and Taiwan to the scenic valley lying in the Hindu Kush last year, but overall business is slow and she’s not convinced that the Taliban seriously want to attract foreign tourists. ”“The situation in Afghanistan is very fragile,” says Yasui. “No one knows what will happen next.”

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