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Hope on the Slopes.

Byline: Manam Iqbal

Young Afghan boys sliding around on the slopes of Bamiyan in homemade skiing gear are bound to be a strange site for anyone visiting the province for the first time.

The pristine mountains of Bamiyan - the central Afghanistan province - has started gaining the attention of skiing enthusiasts from across the world, after a program was launched in the area by the Geneva-based, Aga Khan Foundation (AKF). Once a foreign concept, skiing has become an increasingly popular sport with the locals.

"There's still this image of Afghanistan as a country at war, but you can get quite a favorable impression by seeing the peaceful and secure nature of Bamiyan, and by seeing people having fun - skiing of all things," said Robert Thelen, the regional director of the AKF.

Although one of Afghanistan's poorest regions, Bamiyan is also one of its safest, as its mostly Shia Hazara community do not support the Taliban who massacred the ethnic minority some eleven years ago after they gained control of the province.

Whether the idea of setting up a skiing industry is viable or not, is another story. "As far as the current setup is concerned, the idea of setting up a resort is good and might attract a larger number of tourists as well but nothing can be said about the situation after foreign troops withdraw. It will all depend on the new political setup," said Saleem Safi, a political analyst and renowned Pakistani journalist.

For now, despite the scenic beauty of the place, only the most intrepid of adventurers decide to visit a war-torn Afghanistan. Travel to Bamiyan itself is perilous and dangerous, and there are no commercial flights to the province from Kabul. Travelers who take any of the two routes by road, run the risk of kidnapping or robbery by insurgents; the safest way to reach the place is by catching a humanitarian or diplomatic flight to the area.

But as a skier put it, once you get there, you are overcome by a feeling of security and tranquility. Bamiyan is one of the first provinces where a security transition took place.

"Right now is the best time for creating a ski resort, as you can't wait for peace to be fully restored. The project itself will create job opportunities for many people," said Rahimullah Yusufzai, resident editor of The News.

Although Bamiyan lacks the usual trappings of a ski resort - a proper infrastructure, chairlifts, cable cars or even passable roads and the apres-ski of its guesthouses are limited to a bed, wood-burning stove and little more than kebabs and parlor games - it does have the perfect slopes, with nothing but the swishing of the wind. Largely unknown, the area has an atmosphere of solitude - a far cry from the skiing resorts of Europe or America where tens of thousands of people assemble at the same spot. However, a climb up a mountain is usually lung-bursting and exhaustive, but some suggest a 'donkey lift,' where you hire a local's donkey for the ascent, is the best alternative.

There is also much more to Bamiyan than just the fascinating Koh-i-Baba mountain range. The province has multiple attractions, including the largest sitting Buddha statues, which were carved into cliffs overlooking the Bamiyan town. Although the Taliban blew them up in 2001, their ruins are still listed in UNESCO's World Heritage site. Numerous ruined pre-Islamic forts also dot the province.

But at the end of the day, it all comes down to security -- the biggest challenge for everyone trying to rebuild and start afresh. "Tourism is definitely the easiest way to make a livelihood, but if the Taliban threat remains, there will always be security problems," said Iqbal Khattak, bureau chief of the Daily Times.

Jawad Wafa, who owns a guesthouse at the foot of the mountains, thinks security is essential for tourism to flourish. His little shop is stocked with second-hand, homemade skiing gear. "If security improves, ski tourism will work, if security gets worse, it won't."

Meanwhile, a few months back in Pakistan, the army held a weeklong skiing festival in Malam Jabba - for the first time after the area was cleared of militants. The Pakistani Taliban don't physically occupy any part of Swat anymore. They have been pushed back into Afghanistan after operation Rah e Nijat was launched by the forces. "Malam Jabba already had a skiing infrastructure in place, but it suffered damages after the extremists gained control of the area," said Yusufzai.

The most important element compulsory for a flourishing tourist economy is security. It is only when a sense of security is achieved, that travelers will feel safe enough to visit a country. Generally, tourism as an industry is one that revives relatively easily, even if temporarily damaged owing to civil unrest or political turbulence. A source of livelihood for many, it is usually a simple solution for dismal local conditions.

Both Afghanistan and Pakistan have much to offer in terms of tourism owing to their varied and beautiful topography. With tremendous geographical and human potential, it is only a matter of time before such spots can attract mass revenue and countries in South Asia can serve as safe, tourist destinations. Though there certainly is a massive decline in tourism in both countries, if the security situation is addressed, much can be reaped from natural inheritance. It will certainly take time and commitment, but with concerted efforts, perhaps the world can soon discover a little piece of heaven tucked away in Af-Pak.

Manam Iqbal is a communications graduate and holds a special interest in socio-economic issues in the region.
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Publication:South Asia
Geographic Code:9AFGH
Date:May 31, 2012
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