As President Obama lays out plans for troop withdrawals and a drawdown of military operations in Afghanistan, Canadian operator Bestway Tours & Safaris is introducing a program to bring travelers to the war-torn country starting this fall.
“Most travel agents have lost out on this growing segment of the traveling public and are not even aware that tours are being offered to such countries,” said Mahmood Poonja, chief explorer at Bestway, which started guiding travelers along the Silk Road in 1974.
“The demand for these countries is not in numbers but definitely in people who are highly educated, well traveled and ones who believe in the pluralism of cultures,” he said. “The number of travelers is growing as more and more people become interested in knowing of other countries and cultures through their own experiences.”
He said that for off-the-beaten-path travelers, Afghanistan was a popular destination prior to the Soviet invasion of 1979. "During the Taliban, tourist traffic totally closed,” he said.
Tourists were further dissuaded by the American military invasion in 2001, a program that Obama last month said he wanted to draw to a close by 2014, with significant troop withdrawals slated to start later this year.
In part because of 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,” Poonja said.
Poonja said that Bestway decided to offer Afghanistan because the demand was there. The demographic, he said, is primarily people age 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 also said a surprisingly high number of solo female travelers are interested in visiting Afghanistan.
With a destination like Afghanistan where the tourism product isn’t very developed, Poonja said, travelers need to be flexible about the level of accommodation and creature comforts.
But he added that in the larger cities such as Kabul, there are hotels that meet Western standards in order to serve the high number of delegations and members from international organizations who visit and work in the country.
Bestway set up an outbound office in Canada in 1979, which sends travelers from North America to what Poonja calls “challenging destinations,” such as Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq, Kurdistan, North Korea and Tajikistan.
“We avoid any military installations or any military sites,” Poonja said. “Our interest is on the history and culture. 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 nine-day Afghanistan tour begins and ends in Kabul. It includes traveling through Bamiyan, known for two huge Buddha statues that were destroyed by the Taliban government in March 2001; the Band-e Amir lakes region in the Koh-i-Baba mountain range; Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan, known for its Blue Mosque, a historically significant site for Muslims; and the historical city of Balkh.
Bestway, based in Burnaby, Canada, offers two departures for the Afghanistan tour: Oct. 15 and April 15. The price ranges from $2,990 for the October departure to $3,190 for the April departure. Both prices are based on double occupancy.
Bestway pays 10% commission to travel agents.