|by Michelle Baran||Afghanistan||9|
Just as President Obama laid out plans for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Canadian tour operator Bestway Tours & Safaris introduced a program to bring travelers to the war-torn country, starting this fall.
Mahmood Poonja, who refers to himself as "chief explorer" of Bestway, a company that started guiding travelers along the Silk Road in 1974, said that for off-the-beaten-track travelers, Afghanistan was actually considered a popular destination prior to the Russian invasion of 1979. Then, "during the Taliban, tourist traffic totally closed," he said.
Following that, there was the American military invasion in 2001, a program that in June Obama said he wanted to drawdown by 2014, with significant troop withdrawals slated to begin later this year.
Despite the ongoing military operation in Afghanistan, "the numbers that we have at the moment are not very high numbers going to Afghanistan, but you'd be surprised," said Poonja.
In another attempt to entice Western travelers back, Afghanistan recently reopened its tallest mountain, the 24,580-foot Mt. Noshaq in the northeast, after years of conflict prevented travel in the region, in the hope of boosting adventure tourism, according to a recent report in Gadling.
Poonja said that Bestway decided to offer Afghanistan because the demand was there. The demographic, he said, is primarily travelers aged 45 and up, highly educated and often solo or independent travelers. They are people who are aware of the risks and are ready and willing to take on the challenges the destination presents, he said.
With a destination like Afghanistan where the tourism product isn't very developed, Poonja noted that the travelers need to be flexible about the level of accommodation for instance. But, he also said that in the larger cities, such as Kabul, there are hotels that meet Western standards, catering to the high number of international organizations that visit and work in the country.
Bestway specializes in sending travelers from North America to what Poonja calls "challenging destinations" like Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq, Kurdistan, North Korea and Tajikistan.
"We avoid any military installations or any military sights. Our interest is on the history and culture," said Poonja. "There are lots of areas in Afghanistan that are historically important, like Herat, but they are not safe at the moment. We have done tours to Iraq, but we don't right now."
The 9-day Afghanistan tour begins and ends in Kabul, and includes stops in Bamiyan, known for the two huge Buddha statues that were destroyed by the Taliban government; the Band-e Amir lakes in the Koh-i-Baba mountain range; Mazar-i-Sharif; and the historical city of Balkh.
The Burnaby, Canada-based Bestway currently is offering two departures of the Afghanistan tour, on Oct. 15, and April 15, 2012. The price of the tour ranges between $2,990 for the October departure, based on double occupancy, and $3,190 for the April departure, based on double occupancy.
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