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Page last updated at 08:57 GMT, Tuesday, 15 July 2008 09:57 UK

Getting tourists to Afghanistan's 'Grand Canyon'

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Band-e Amir

The Grand Canyon at Band-e Amir
It is an area of outstanding natural beauty

It takes eight bone-shaking hours on a dirt track road to reach Afghanistan's first national park from the capital, but the beauty and serenity is worth crossing the world for.

Imagine the Grand Canyon flooded with deep sapphire lakes, bluer than the cloudless sky, with sheer golden cliffs plunging into turquoise shallows.

High above the Band-e Amir valley in Bamiyan province the Hindu Kush mountains glow an almost-pink, framing the beautiful long pools that overflow into gushing waterfalls.

It's a paradise, an oasis, in central Afghanistan - a bubble of security and peace in a country which is more used to war and instability.

'Better security'

Some tourists do make the tortuous journey and on Fridays the pedalo man with his brightly coloured swan-shaped boats usually has a very busy day.

Governor, Habiba Serobi
Unfortunately the aid is always going to the more difficult areas where there are problems and conflict
Governor Habiba Serobi
Afghans travel out to Band-e Amir for picnics, a favourite family pastime at weekends and take a refreshing dip. The boats are a good way of seeing the sights for $8 an hour.

"Any improvements would help attract more visitors here," said Ismael Alaa, poring over the book where he notes down which boats have been hired.

"But particularly, we need better roads to bring in people and supplies - and better security, even though it's not bad here."

There are a few accommodation tents and trinket stores plonked near the car park - just a few tables set up to serve the tourist trade.

One or two places will even slaughter a lamb for lunch if they think the group is big enough to make it worth their while.

Attaqulla cooked our kebabs on a narrow metal barbecue, but his full time job is with the local department of tourism.

He explained the attraction of the new national park: "It's not an artificial lake, it's natural and really deep.

"Because of the way it's been formed, almost like it's been blocked at one end, people look at it as a miracle and come from all over the country to see it.

Waterfall at the national park
The national park is well worth the tortuous journey from Kabul

"But local people from Bamiyan believe the third caliph of Islam came here once, so they treat it as a religious site and come to pray at the shrine."

Standing high on the edge of the canyon the views are truly breathtaking, but the one thing missing is people.

There are very few visitors to the area, not least because of the roads, but also because of the deteriorating security situation in the surrounding provinces.

It's one of the most peaceful parts of Afghanistan, but the Governor, Habiba Serobi, the only female governor in the country, believes if more money isn't put into the area then the situation could worsen.

'Destroyed'

"Unfortunately the aid is always going to the more difficult areas where there are problems and conflict - that's where the international community puts more money," she said.

Ismael Alaa
Facilities for tourists may be basic but the staff are keen

"They don't care about Bamiyan if it is safe and secure, but the danger is people will be angry and disappointed with the central government and the international community.

"So in the future the distance between the government and the people will be bigger and it will be a cause of problems."

There is a small military presence of troops from New Zealand in the province and there are some developments - a new town hall has just been finished and work has started on building new roads in the city.

But there is a lot of poverty and near to the mountain where the famous Buddhas once stood before they were destroyed by the Taleban in 2001, families are living in caves.

This beautiful and peaceful part of a violent country has huge potential to make Afghanistan a lot of money, but only when the majority of foreign visitors here aren't carrying guns and fighting an insurgency.



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