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Afghanistan Struggles to Rebuild Tourism Industry

After more than three decades of war and civil unrest, Afghanistan remains one of the world's poorest and most dangerous countries. But this month, officials in Kabul have initiated a new five-year campaign to revitalize the country's tourism industry.

Nasrullah Stanekzai is Afghanistan's deputy minister of tourism.

It is, he acknowledges, not always the easiest job and certainly not the most popular.

The first tourism minister installed after the end of the old Taleban government was beaten to death in 2002.

The second was killed last year when his car was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

There is, Stanekzai says, still a lot to do before Afghanistan is really tourist-friendly.

"We have some challenges for the tourism, first I think is the security, second we haven't capacity for the hospitality," the minister said. "We haven't yet the tourism culture, we haven't capacity for services for tourism."

But he says, slowly things are getting better.

Just a few months ago Kabul celebrated the opening of its first five-star hotel, the chic Kabul Serena.

The $30 million project was paid for by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, which hopes the hotel will help revitalize Kabul's economy.

Chicken Street, a dusty stretch of small stores and outdoor vendors is Kabul's best-known shopping area.

In 2004 a suicide bomber attacked the street, killing an American woman and an 11-year-old girl.

Today, shop owners such as Karim Azam say tourists are beginning to trickle back.

"As long as we have better security tourists will come. They used to come, lots of people would come. If they come we already have our stuff that shows Afghan culture," he said.

Stanekzai's office is helping kick off a five-year campaign to revitalize the tourism industry.

He says Afghanistan boasts world class tourist sites, including what is left of giant third-century Buddhist statues. The strict Islamist Taleban government destroyed the famed statues in 2001.

With Indian and Japanese funding, Stanekzai says, a new visitors' center is being built near the remains of the statues, and four other national parks are being established elsewhere in the country.

The country's other attractions include the 12th-century Minaret of Jam, which is on the UNESCO world heritage list, several fourth-century Buddhist ruins, and in Herat, 11th-century building complexes that are rich in Islamic art. And, in the past, many tourists came just to enjoy the country's stunning natural beauty, including the Hindu Kush mountains.

To get the tourism campaign rolling, Stanekzai says his office is coordinating a cultural festival in India. Many of the country's visitors come from India and Pakistan.

He says the exhibition, which opens this month in New Delhi, will have a little bit of everything.

"Afghan food festival, a fashion show, dance, Afghan national music and also handicrafts and films," he explains.

Ideally, he would like to see Afghanistan recapture some of the tourist traffic it enjoyed during the 1960s and '70s. In those days, before the Soviet Union invaded, hundreds of thousands of tourists visited Afghanistan every year.

At one point, according to the ministry's old data, tourism generated more than $40 million for local businesses.

Last year, 2,000 tourists came.

But even that is a step in the right direction, up from around 500 the year before.

In 2006, Stanekzai says there could be three, four, maybe even five times as many visitors.

Just around the corner from his office is Royal Limited, one of Afghanistan's first locally owned and operated travel agencies.

Proprietor Naveed Wardak says business already is pretty good and getting better every day.

"Business is wonderful. I am advising that everyone wants to come here if they can," he said. "Everyone wants to come … we have daily two flights and all (the) time it is full."

Wardak opened his office, by himself, two years ago. Now he has more than six employees and plans to hire more in the next few weeks.

But he insists he is interested in more than just expanding his business or making money.

He says really what he wants is to help people see his country and see how much it has changed since the Taleban were kicked out of power in 2001.

"Look, whenever I am going to the airport, whenever I am seeing the flight is full it is proud (pride) and happiness for me," he said.

Of course, he says the challenge is making sure that once people get here they have a good time and stay safe.

And obviously, he says, Afghanistan has a long way to go. But for the first time in decades, he says he thinks the country is headed in the right direction.