BAMIYAN, Afghanistan – There's a new building in town, and it isn't a military barracks or a hospital. It's a Tourist Information Center.
Even as troops fight militants in the south, government officials and donors in Afghanistan's central Bamiyan valley are training tour guides and teaching restaurateurs about customer service. It's an attempt to draw tourism and return one small part of Afghanistan to normalcy.
The challenges are many — land mines, dangerous roads outside Bamiyan, and, not least, Afghanistan's reputation as anything but a tourist haven. But the hope is to persuade history buffs and adventure seekers that Afghanistan can be safe, and locals are eager to give it a shot.
"I can improve my province this way, and my homeland," said 19-year-old Zahra Naseri, as she rattled off facts about the calcium carbonate that gives the ground a whitish cast around a series of cascading mountain lakes. Naseri is one of about 20 people, mostly university students, who gather once a day at the tourist center for lessons on how to become tour guides. "I want to show that Bamiyan is a historical place."
The tourism training program is funded through a Geneva-based Islamic organization, the Aga Khan Development Network, as part of a $1.2 million ecotourism program. All Afghan tourism initiatives are currently funded by international donors, according to Deputy Minister for Tourism Ghulam Nabi Farahi. New Zealand and Japan are big donors in Bamiyan.
Back in the 1960s, Afghanistan was a major stop on the "hippie trail" of backpackers and enlightenment seekers. Foreigners tramped through on their way to India, staying in teahouses and touring the ancient cliff-hewn Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.
There are now signs that tourism is increasing again, however slightly. Airport and hotel records show more than 400 foreigners had visited the Bamiyan area by early June, up from about 180 the same time in 2008, said Najibullah Ahrar, a representative from the information and culture ministry. He said many of them may have mixed work in the area with seeing the sights.
There's still much to attract: Towering cliff caverns hold remnants of the Buddha statues. Ancient cities have been preserved from looters by the very land mines that make them dangerous to visit.
But by the end of October, the major historical sites are expected to be landmine-free. The area around the Buddhas has already been cleared. Deminers are now clearing mines from the top of the cliff, from where they were washing down with the spring rains.
A two-and-a-half hour drive away through golden canyons sits Afghanistan's first national park, dedicated in June — the glassy Band-e-Amir lakes. Reflecting the jagged grey and red cliffs that surround them, the lakes have been described as Afghanistan's answer to the Grand Canyon.
Entrepreneurship is also on the rise. A pizza joint is about to open at the foot of the destroyed Buddha statues. One of the more popular hotels with tourists — The Roof of Bamiyan — is working on getting wireless Internet. And a hotel that caters more to business workers already has WiFi, run off a backup battery so it works even when the generator doesn't.
The U.N. Environment Program is also mapping out hiking trails between villages, with stops at way-stations manned by locals.
"Afghanistan is definitely a good brand. People will come... They go to Nepal this year, they go to Chile the next year, they're off to Afghanistan if it's accessible," said Andrew Scanlon, a protected areas expert working on the U.N. project. The plan, he explained, is "providing really really fantastic outdoor experiences in natural landscapes that are somehow managed so it doesn't get out of control."
Scanlon is organizing a 13-mile run for late September, which he bills as "the world's most beautiful half marathon, linking the cultural and natural landscape in Bamiyan." It will go through areas that were inaccessible a few years ago because of land mines.
Of course, there are still safety issues. In Bamiyan itself, there are no suicide bombings or roadside ambushes, no checkpoints to get from one part of town to another. The area — almost completely populated by the Hazara ethnic minority — doesn't have ethnic clashes.
But tourists still have to get here. Road attacks mean that the eight-hour drive from Kabul to Bamiyan over a rocky dirt road can be dangerous. The only flights are for the U.N., or other aid or development workers.
One tour operator, Great Game Travel, stopped trips to Bamiyan last year because they were concerned about road safety. The non-profits and private tourism companies say there are lots of plans to work out flights to the area, but no firm commitments.
And the country itself is still very much at war, with Taliban militants controlling large parts of the south and launching attacks in the east. Many Western nations warn their citizens to stay away.
"No part of Afghanistan should be considered immune from violence, and the potential exists throughout the country for hostile acts, either targeted or random, against American and other Western nationals at any time," states the U.S. travel warning on Afghanistan.
There are also language issues — for example, it's unclear who will employ the tour guides, since many do not speak enough English to easily guide international tourists. Training coordinator Jawad Jahid describes the training as a first step, much like the business seminars they're running for local hotels and restaurants.
Tourism backers can look to the north of Afghanistan for hope. There, trekkers and culture buffs never stopped visiting the northern Wakhan corridor and the historical city of Mazar-e-Sharif, because they can be entered through the neighboring countries of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. There's no need to enter the heavily barricaded Afghan capital.
Peter Schneider, a German doctor, is typical of the type of tourist who goes to Afghanistan: he has experience in difficult countries from his time working on medical evacuations. He has vacationed in Lebanon and Congo. The 44-year-old said in a phone interview that his trip to the north with a tour company this spring was his attempt to understand the people and the culture of a country he'd heard so much about.
"It's some sort of adventurous traveling, so it's of course more interesting than going to Thailand. Which is actually quite boring, isn't it?" Schneider said.
Schneider would like to go back and see Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan.
But he said he'll wait until it's a bit safer.