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Attack on tourists rocks fledgling Afghanistan tourism sector

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An attack claimed by the Islamic State group which killed foreign tourists visiting a market in central Afghanistan has also dealt a blow to the country’s nascent tourism sector.

“If there is another attack in the next few weeks or months, Afghanistan’s tourism industry will be over,” said Joe Sheffer, founder of the Safarat tourism agency, which specialises in tours to the country.

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He spoke to AFP after the attack by one or more gunmen on Friday that killed six people in central Bamiyan province, including three Spanish tourists. Another four foreigners in the tourist group were wounded.

The Islamic State group on Sunday claimed the assault on the group of 13 travellers with a Spanish tour agency, believed to be the first against foreign tourists since the Taliban’s return to power in 2021.

The Taliban authorities have touted improved security in Afghanistan ever since their takeover in 2021 ended their insurgency against foreign-backed government forces.

– Knowing the risks –

Bamiyan province, with its giant Buddhas dynamited in 2001 under the Taliban’s first rule and turquoise lakes at Band-e Amir, is the country’s leading tourist destination.

Sheffer said a couple of customers had already cancelled their trip and the company was reviewing its operations in Afghanistan.

“We will reduce group sizes… We are cancelling itineraries in remote locations… We are reducing walking in public places,” he told AFP.

Founder of the Untamed Border tour agency, James Willcox, said, “Of course, any violent attack on tourists will have a negative impact on future tourist interest.”

However, he added: “We have been working in Afghanistan for over 15 years and there has never been a time when there has not been anti-government groups operating in the country. Sadly it is something that everyone that visits Afghanistan has to consider when they travel.”

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In Bangkok, Phakhaporn Thantadakul, manager of the Away Vacation tour agency, wants to cancel a trip set for June/July.

The group from majority Buddhist Thailand wanted to visit Bamiyan, once a major centre of Buddhist influence.

“I will check with my group first because the security is coming first. If anything happens, I cannot handle it,” she said.

– ‘Negative impact’ –

The founder of travel agency Let’s be Friends Afghanistan (LBFA) Noor Mohammad Ramazan said, “Questions flooded towards me from clients worried about safety” after the attack.

“Crowded areas and communicating with locals is the favourite part for the tourists in Afghanistan. But unfortunately for a while we will have to stay away from that,” he said.

However, he said he believes the attack will not entirely end tourism.

“We had lots of issues before in Afghanistan but still adventurous travellers want to visit,” said Ramazan, who started LBFA in 2015.

French tourist Didier Goudant, who visited Bamiyan for the second year in a row on a ski trip two months ago, said he would hesitate to return now.

“We knew the risk of terrorism existed in Afghanistan, but it seemed less in Bamiyan, a tranquil, welcoming region,” the lawyer said.

– Lack of infrastructure –

The Taliban government — not recognised by any country in the world — is keen to encourage tourism, though many Western governments have repeatedly warned against visiting Afghanistan.

Though lacking in infrastructure, the beauty of its landscapes and legendary hospitality of its people have attracted a growing number of adventurers to the country recently.

Tourists have started to trickle in since the Taliban ousted the Western-backed government, with official figures showing visits rose by 120 percent to almost 5,200 last year.

“The problems in Afghanistan is that we have gone from zero tourists to possibly 7,000, some people say 10,000 in the year,” said Sheffer, the founder of Safarat tourism agency.

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“It’s all been too much, too fast,” he added.

“A lot of tour operators who started out in a very slow, extremely cautions way, using a lot of security techniques… a lot of those precautions have kind of been left behind because we are fighting fires in terms of organising infrastructure, organising transport.”

Sheffer predicts the Taliban government, which arrested seven suspects after the attack, will react by imposing more rules on tourists already required to register in every province they visit.

“It will just make it more difficult for foreign tourists to enjoy the country,” he said.

But, he added, it “will do nothing to prevent a repeat of the attack”.

© Agence France-Presse