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Hard Times for Afghan Tourism

January 9, 2002

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NEW YORK (AP) _ Afghanistan was never a big travel magnet, and U.S. travel agents doubt that will change anytime soon.

Afghan officials now say visitors are welcome _ a change for a country devastated since the Soviets invaded in 1979.

But it emerges from five years of harsh rule by the now-deposed Taliban with decidedly non-tourist attractions: land mines, gun-toting mujahedeen and a U.S.-led military campaign to rid the country of terrorists. Not to mention travel warnings by the U.S. State Department and a lack of any direct flight.

Afghanistan may offer the contrasted beauty of snowcapped mountains and wind-swept deserts, but flights to the region aren’t likely to increase until people feel more secure about traveling there, said Ved Gulati, owner of The Travel Center, a New York-based agency that specializes in travel to South Asia.

Gulati said that at his firm, tickets booked for leisure travel to the region have dropped by three-fourths compared to last year and flights by individuals to visit family are down by half. His bookings for business travel fell by about 80 percent.

``Canceled flights to the region are what we’ve seen most,″ he said. ``Business has been terrible.″

Afghanistan’s national carrier Ariana has promised to resume flights in the near future, but a starting date has yet to be announced. Most people looking to enter the country must fly to one of Afghanistan’s neighbors like Pakistan, Iran or Uzbekistan. From there they must travel overland into Afghanistan.

Representatives from Pakistan International Airlines said that many people on their international flights are journalists or relief workers.

``Still lots of people are flying home just to see how things are going,″ said spokesman Shafgat Durrani. ``Many are flying to Peshawar and many are flying to Lahore and most are using PIA because its the closest they can get to Afghanistan.″

Some industry analysts are predicting that travel to the region will pick up.

``Within 12 months or so, if hostilities end, tourism may indeed, increase,″ said Arnie Weissmann, editor and chief of Travel Weekly. ``Though travel to Afghanistan after more years of war than most can remember, hasn’t been good for a long time.″

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