What it’s like to travel to Afghanistan now

(CNN) Headlines about Afghanistan are mostly riddled with tragedy: food shortages, orphaned children and even executions.

Since the Taliban took complete control of the country in 2021, the humanitarian situation there has deteriorated as economic and diplomatic isolation does little to ease unrest caused by the country’s new rulers’ human rights abuses.

But everyday life goes on.

Kabul and other cities are now experiencing their first significant lull in conflict in decades and continue to thrive on trade. Shops and restaurants are still open. Battered cars crowd the streets. Electricity is scarce, but generators keep lights on in hotels and in the homes of those who can afford them.

And while many outsiders might get the impression that Afghanistan is on lockdown, that’s not quite the case. The airports and border crossings are open – and some brave travelers are taking trips to see what it’s like.

For travel vlogger Kristijan Iličić, the opportunity to be a tourist in Afghanistan was too interesting to turn down.

He had visited the country in 2020 and had stayed in touch with some of the people he had met there, but the departure of American forces and the return to Taliban rule in 2021 made him curious about what had happened since his first trip had changed.

“I wanted to see how some of my friends are doing now under Taliban rule,” Iličić told CNN.

“There’s also always a curiosity to see what the actual situation is compared to what we’re all seeing and hearing in Western media.”

Although there are many transportation options, he knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

Going to a no-go country

The largest hub for international flights to and from Afghanistan is the United Arab Emirates: there are 16 flights per week to Kabul International Airport from Dubai and three more from Abu Dhabi.

There are also direct flights from Istanbul, Turkey, as well as from the Pakistani capital Islamabad and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The land borders with Uzbekistan, Iran and Tajikistan are also open.

However, travelers cannot simply show up at the airport and board a plane. Tourist visas are required for citizens of most Western countries, and there are fewer Afghan embassies worldwide than there were two years ago.

Croatian Iličić said he could get a visa costing $500 within 24 hours at the Afghan Embassy in Dubai.

And there is more to consider than just getting a visa. While the Taliban have brought relative peace to Afghanistan, security issues remain, with regular attacks claimed by the terrorist group ISIS.

As international sanctions take hold, famine, collapsing health care and deteriorating sanitation have their own consequences, as do the frequent natural disasters that plague the country.

A street scene in Kabul, June 2022.

Travelers who choose Afghanistan may not be supported by their home country if something goes wrong or they need assistance.

The United States closed its embassy in Kabul in August 2021 and a Level 4 tourism advisory, Do Not Travel, remains in place.

A State Department statement said: “Travel to all areas of Afghanistan is unsafe and the risk of kidnapping or violence against US citizens in Afghanistan is high. The U.S. government is unable to provide emergency services to citizens of Afghanistan and our ability to assist detained U.S. citizens is extremely limited.”

The United Kingdom also strongly advises its citizens not to travel there.

Travel insurance is available for a traveler determined to travel to Afghanistan, but it may come with limitations or a higher cost.

“The vast majority of travel insurance policies sold offer no coverage and the policy is void or non-existent if you travel to a country that has a government’s no-travel status,” Andrew Jernigan, CEO of travel insurance company Insured Nomads, tells CNN.

In situations like these, Insured Nomads offers a World Explorer Hotspot plan that starts at $810 per person for a week. The plan includes what the company describes as “24-hour special operations and crisis response” and “kidnapping and ransom services.”

What is it actually like to visit now? Although the situation could unravel by the day – particularly in winter and with a Taliban-imposed ban on female aid workers only compounding the crisis – those who made the trip say there have been positives.

James Willcox, co-founder of tourism company Untamed Borders, has been guiding groups to Afghanistan since 2008. He made his first trip under the new Taliban rule in autumn 2022.

“In general, the country feels a lot safer since I’ve worked there,” says Willcox.

Although this may seem confusing to outsiders who have seen images of unrest on television, Willcox says that “when it comes to security in Afghanistan, the biggest anti-government group is now the government.”

Additionally, the regime change had the unintended side effect of making certain parts of the country more accessible to visitors.

As a result, he and his clients were able to visit more parts of the country than before, particularly the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.

The Untamed Borders group stayed at a range of accommodations during their visit: hotels in larger cities, homestays in rural areas and even a night camping in pop-up tents in the Bamiyan Valley, famous for the colossal Buddha statues known to have been destroyed by the previous Taliban government in 2001.

While restaurants and cafes were open in Kabul and other cities, the group ate dinner at their homestays to avoid venturing into rural areas at night.

Willcox also had the group drive around in regular cars, rather than SUVs or souped-up Jeeps. “About 95%” of cars in Afghanistan are Toyotas, especially models like Corollas and Camrys, so he knew his customers with the same vehicles would draw less attention.

Iličić and the driver and translator he hired stayed in small locally owned hotels and homestays. He says he loved one of Afghanistan’s national dishes, kabuli pilaf, a lamb and rice pilaf, and ate it “every day,” while also sampling kebabs and street food in Kabul.

The second time

On their return visits, both Willcox and Iličić were able to visit new regions of the country, and both checked an item on their wish list by going to the minaret of Jam, a 12th-century structure in the remote province of Ghor that was the country’s first was a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Still, there were creases at the last minute. In rural areas it is common to ask the local leadership for permission to visit, which was difficult on Fridays when everything is closed on the Muslim Day of Worship.

Security checks remain an ongoing reality of life in Afghanistan as well.

As Willcox explains, the Taliban changed some things, but infrastructure was not one of them. He says the checkpoints are still in the same places as they used to be, only with Taliban patrolling them, rather than foreign military personnel or the Afghan National Army.

“Obviously nothing has been rebuilt (because) there is no money. There are Taliban flags, but otherwise everything looks pretty much the same,” says Willcox. “And at the checkpoints, one of the most remarkable things was that the Taliban fighters weren’t interested in us.”

Willcox with an Untamed Borders client in Afghanistan.

Iličić feels that the Taliban were interested in his vlogging and saw it as an opportunity to get good PR. At a checkpoint in Bamiyan, he says, he was invited for tea and a chat.

“The Taliban wanted to present themselves as peaceful people (so) they let me go to whatever destinations I had in mind. The Taliban 20 years ago didn’t care what the world thought of them. This version, Taliban 2.0, cares. They try to put a good picture of them out into the world.”

Arash Azizzada, co-director of the non-profit organization Afghans For A Better Tomorrow, agrees with Iličić’s assessment of the Taliban, albeit for very different reasons.

“The Taliban regime is a pariah around the world, desperate for positive media or a positive portrayal of what is brutal and catastrophic rule,” says Azizzada, an Afghan-American.

He believes foreign vloggers and influencers going to Afghanistan under the current regime are engaging in “atrocity tourism”.

“At best, these travel vloggers who visit Afghanistan are clueless and naïve,” says Azizzada. “At their worst, they are useful idiots whose opportunism helps whitewash the Taliban’s horrific crimes.”

For women, a different story

There is a reason why Iličić, who often travels with his wife Andrea, visited Afghanistan alone.

Since the Taliban took power, the Taliban have increasingly restricted women’s public space, keeping them out of workplaces, educational institutions and even public parks.

Unsurprisingly, clothing—particularly headgear—is a common question for potential tourists approaching Untamed Borders.

“It’s up to the tour guide to make sure our female tourists are respectable,” says Willcox, the tour guide. “The guys have a responsibility to uphold certain values ​​and if they don’t do it, they get shamed.”

Willcox and his colleagues bring appropriate clothing for both male and female travelers. Due to local laws that women must have a male companion, they ask female guests not to leave their guest houses alone.

However, Willcox says, women in Afghanistan have different freedoms as tourists in some ways. You are free to mingle and chat with local women, although men are strongly discouraged.

Every trip has its pros and cons, but those who have been there say that visiting Afghanistan is still for the bravest travelers.

“Even if Afghanistan is not the most dangerous country in the world, it is still not safe,” says Iličić. “My advice is: do your research, get a very good local guide, respect the culture you are visiting, be kind to the people (and) abide by the rules.

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