Thousands of people are fleeing the conflict roiling Afghanistan, but American backpacker John Milton recently made the reverse journey to the war-ravaged country – for a holiday.
Armed with little more than travel guidebooks and an unflagging spirit of adventure, hardy bands of “war tourists” such as Milton visit Afghanistan’s pristine mountains and medieval ruins every year, ignoring warnings of kidnappings and bombings.
A Taliban attack on a group of American and European tourists in western Herat province, which left some of them wounded, has brought into sharp focus such global thrill-seekers who imperil their lives to vacation in war zones.
“Visiting conflict zones and off-the-beaten-path destinations is so much more rewarding than the usual global tourist destinations,” said Milton, a 46-year-old former investment banker, who visited Afghanistan in June and has also vacationed in Somalia and North Korea.
“(My) family and friends think I am a fool to take such risks but… if you are not willing to risk the unusual, then you will have to settle for the ordinary. I just don’t want to die without having any scars!”
In the attack a tourist bus carrying eight Britons, three Americans and one German national came under Taliban fire as it was being escorted through a volatile district in Herat by the Afghan army.
The attack, which left seven people wounded including the Afghan minibus driver, prompted scorn on social media, with many questioning why the tourists were travelling overland at a time when most Western embassies warn their citizens against all travel in the country.
The owner of Hinterland Travel, a Britain-based adventure travel agency which reportedly organised the tour, was also said to be among the injured and was pilloried for what was widely perceived as recklessness. He was not reachable for comment.
‘Worth the risk’
But warzone tourism is hardly limited to Afghanistan.
In 2013, Japanese trucker Toshifumi Fujimoto, bored with his humdrum job, jaunted through the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo, telling AFP that his previous adventures had taken him through Yemen among other Middle East hotspots.
Such tourists are the exception rather than the norm, said James Willcox, founder of another England-based adventure travel operator Untamed Borders, which organises trips to Afghanistan, Somalia and Somaliland.
“One of the main reasons people come on our trips… is to (see) countries for the multi-faceted, complex places they are. We do not choose destinations because they are dangerous,” Willcox told AFP.
“Very few would come because of bragging rights in my opinion. Most people are not impressed by someone having visited Afghanistan.”
Afghanistan is endowed with stunning landscapes and archaeological sites, but many are located in areas plagued by insurgency.
But a few areas are safely reachable by air.
The ancient city of Bamiyan, famous for empty hillside niches that once sheltered giant Buddha statues that were blown up by the Taliban, is one of them.
The central province, a landscape of russet-hued cliffs, was once a caravan stop along the fabled Silk Road and is currently at the centre of Afghan efforts to boost tourism revenue.
The northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, famous for its blue-tiled mosque and Panjshir Valley, known for its snowcapped peaks and precious stones, are some other relatively peaceful areas.
“Yes, (Afghanistan) is a risky destination but it’s a calculated risk,” said Milton.
“If done properly then the risks can be mitigated quite well and the rewards greatly outweigh the risks – access to a country and culture that not many people get to experience.”
“Afghanistan desperately needs foreign tourists,” ministry spokesperson Haroon Hakimi told AFP, adding that 20 000 foreigners visited Kabul last year.
“The economy is in shambles and this is an important source of revenue.”
Jonny Blair, a 36-year-old Irish backpacker, said he was undaunted by the violence.
“My lasting memory of Afghanistan was playing football with children by the Buddha monastery in Samangan (northern Afghanistan) (and) a night out drinking tea and smoking shisha (water pipe) in Mazari-Sharif,” he told AFP.
“It’s totally worth the risk.”