Updated Saturday, January 12, 2013 at 11:01 PM
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban have a message for foreign tourists who come to Afghanistan, especially if they are from any of the 50 countries that are part of the NATO-led coalition supporting the government: big mistake.
“It is part of our war strategy to target any foreign citizen whose country has a military presence in Afghanistan and enters our country without permission from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” said Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the insurgents in northern and eastern Afghanistan, reached by telephone at an undisclosed location.
The U.S. government has pretty much the same message. “No part of Afghanistan should be considered immune from violence,” the U.S. State Department’s latest travel advisory says. “There is an ongoing and increased risk of kidnapping and assassination of U.S. citizens,” it also says.
Yet some tourists still come, though in what most officials say are ever-dwindling numbers.
Two of those who did were a newlywed couple, a pregnant American woman and her Canadian husband, who apparently arrived in Afghanistan in early October and disappeared by mid-October, reportedly kidnapped in an insurgent area. They were traveling partly on foot, staying in a tent and in local guesthouses, according to their family, and have not been heard from since.
Another two were a wealthy Russian couple, who hired an armored car and bodyguards at $1,500 a day, stayed in the $356-a-night Kabul Serena Hotel, toured the Panjshir Valley, and went home on schedule.
“Until 2005, we were driving tourists everywhere,” said Muqim Jamshady, owner of Afghan Logistics and Tours, who says his company is the only one still catering to foreign visitors. “Now we are operating still, but very carefully.”
Few tourist destinations are as exotic as Afghanistan, with some of the world’s most rugged, snowcapped mountains in the Hindu Kush and Pamir ranges, ancient Buddhist monuments and stunning Islamic architecture, such as the elegant Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif.
Jamshady says he often discourages prospective tourists, especially those who want to come in groups. “We really tell them, don’t come on your own, come through a friend who works in an NGO,” he said, referring to a nongovernmental organization, “in small groups or ones and twos. Security is the priority for us. We don’t want to ruin the reputation of our company. Pure tourists, I would say there are only 100 to 150 a year.”
Afghanistan has been consumed by war off and on for three decades, but the collapse of the tourism industry, he says, dates to the kidnapping of a South Korean tour group by the Taliban in 2007. Two of the Koreans were killed, and 19 were freed after six weeks in captivity and the payment of a ransom reportedly totaling $20 million. In addition, South Korea agreed to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.
Security throughout Afghanistan worsened after that, and tourism was all but wiped out by 2008. Since then the number of places that are safe to visit has dwindled.
“We didn’t host a single tourist guest last year, and the year before there were only a few,” said Abdul Saboor Shafaq, owner of the Silk Road hotel, in central Bamian province, one of the safest places in the country. The 10-room hotel is widely acclaimed for its immaculate rooms and improbable but excellent sushi.
“I don’t know how Afghanistan will get safe again, if after 10 years of the international community it is still not safe,” Jamshady said.
Like tourism industries anywhere, Afghan tourism has boosters. “The security situation is fairly stable, and tourists who visit are fairly comfortable and they are pleased when they see a hotel of this standard,” said Shahryar Khan, general manager of the Kabul Serena Hotel, which has five stars and “world-class security measures.”
The 177-room hotel runs at 64 percent occupancy, Khan said, and tourists make up an increasing share of the guests.
The Serena has twice been attacked by terrorists, and in 2008 Taliban insurgents killed six guests in an attack aimed at the hotel’s health spa.
According to Afghanistan’s deputy minister of tourism, Ghulam Nabi Farahi, the country attracts between 15,000 and 20,000 tourists annually, a number that he said is growing by 1,000 to 2,000 each year.
He said that figure was based on visas issued at Afghan embassies, although many aid workers and journalists come to Afghanistan on tourist visas, which are easier to get than work visas.
“Afghanistan is a country very suitable for attracting tourists,” Farahi said. “It’s a place where tourists can have all their wishes come true.”
He insisted there have been no recent cases of tourists attacked or kidnapped.
That would come as news to James Coleman and his wife, Lynn, from York County, Pa., who last month began a YouTube appeal for the release of their daughter, Caitlan, and her Canadian husband, Josh, whose last name has been withheld at the family’s request.
The authorities in Wardak province initially said the couple had been taken from a car in the Sayed Abad District, an area infested with Taliban insurgents.
Coleman, in an interview with The Associated Press, described his daughter as “naive” and “adventuresome.”
She was also seven months’ pregnant when she disappeared, with a chronic liver condition; her baby was due this month.
“As parents and soon-to-be grandparents, we appeal to whoever is caring for her to show compassion and allow Caity, Josh and our unborn grandbaby to come home,” Coleman said in the video.
Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said he could not confirm whether the pair had been taken by the group, because it was too difficult to reach local Taliban commanders in that area, but he said it was possible and would be justified.
“It is their people who elect their governments and parliaments who then wage wars around the world,” he said.
The Taliban commander in the Sayed Abad District, Juma Khan, reached by cellphone, was initially friendly to an Afghan caller. When asked about the American and Canadian couple, however, he hung up and switched off his phone.
“Why would any tourist want to go to Wardak?” asked Farahi, the deputy tourism minister. “There’s nothing in Wardak for tourists. Perhaps they were actually journalists. I wouldn’t call them stupid, because we don’t use that word in our culture, but I would not have advised them to go there.”