Monday, March 13, 2006

Tourism a tough sell in Afghanistan, East Timor and Rwanda


"Afghanistan, Rwanda or East Timor may not top most holiday destination lists, but the war-scarred countries are now trying to appeal to adventure tourists keen to spy gorillas in the wild, or take a tour led by a former guerrilla.

Marketing executives at the International Tourism Fair (ITB) in Berlin admitted that they faced a challenge selling former conflict zones as vacation spots but said that even marginal success could mark a new beginning for the countries.

"The past is the past and the future is now" reads the slogan on a glossy travel brochure about Rwanda, displayed at a colorful stand staffed by men in flowing African robes.

Although Rwanda is synonymous for most Europeans with the 1994 massacre in which 800,000 people were killed in the span of 100 days, the country sees tourism, primarily driven by gorilla photo safaris, as a path toward economic redevelopment.

Meanwhile East Timor, which has a bloody legacy of Indonesian occupation in which more than 100,000 Timorese are believed to have died, is also undergoing a campaign to revamp its image.

It takes pride in being "the newest country in the world" since voting for independence in 1999 and guerrillas who once fought Indonesian forces are now offering treks into the country's verdant interior complete with vivid combat stories, said Eduardo Massa, director of the country's only tour company, Timor Megatours.

Massa is a tireless salesman of the country's charms: its coastline "where you are all alone, the beach is all yours", its organic coffee plantations and especially its rich underwater life, perfect for divers.

About 1,000 tourists per month come looking for a bit of paradise off the beaten track, with Australians, Japanese and French travelers leading the pack.

According to Massa, they are not put off by the lack of infrastructure and the "very basic" accommodations.

Afghanistan, however, may be an even tougher sell, plagued as it is by ongoing strife.

Ulf Amann, a German consultant working on a concept to develop tourism in the central Asian nation, acknowledges "there are very unique conditions" in a country ravaged by 20 years of war, the brutality of the extremist Taliban regime and continued bombing attacks.

Amann said that there is a select target audience ready to consider a trip to Afghanistan, comprised largely of educated people over 40 who have higher than average incomes but are ready to sacrifice a bit of comfort to discover a fascinating country.

"Yes, I'm who he is talking about," interjected Dieter Krause, a German software engineer visiting the ITB stand.

Krause said that he had visited the country in the 1970s and had fond memories of traveling by camel through ruggedly dramatic landscapes and staying with hospitable locals.

Amann admits that it will take some time before Afghanistan revives the tourism heyday that it enjoyed three decades ago.

Many of its cultural treasures have been obliterated, including the ancient Buddha statues of Bamiyan northwest of Kabul that were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, although there are a few restoration initiatives.

A tentative start in organizing tours with foreign travelers has involved two-day excursions from Uzbekistan and in 2005, some 2,200 tourists went to Afghanistan.

Amann said that as soon as an adventurous vanguard paved the way, others would follow.

Although it will probably take decades before broad-based tours take hold, he said that the plan now was to develop two or three safe and attractive destinations in cooperation with clan chiefs who can help guarantee security.

Tourism could then become a viable source of income for part of a new generation of Afghans.

"For the moment, there are few real sources of income other than from drugs," he said, referring to the booming poppy industry used to produce heroin.

"There is investment in education but it is the next generation that will benefit from that."

Source: Middle East Times (from UNOTIL Public Information Office, Daily Media Review)
Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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