(CNN) Most of the time, headlines about Afghanistan are filled with tragedy: food shortages, orphaned children and even executions.
Since the Taliban took full control of the country in 2021, the humanitarian situation there has worsened, as economic and diplomatic isolation does little to ease the strife caused by human rights abuses committed by the country’s new rulers.
However, everyday life goes on.
Now experiencing their first significant lull in the conflict for decades, Kabul and other cities continue to bustle with commerce. Shops and restaurants are still open. Crashed cars flood the streets. Electricity is in short supply, but generators keep the lights on in hotels and the homes of those who can afford them.
And while many outsiders may have the impression that Afghanistan is closed off, that is not entirely the case. Its airports and border crossings are open — and some intrepid travelers are making trips to see what it’s like.
For travel vlogger Kristijan Ilicic, the opportunity to be a tourist in Afghanistan was too interesting to turn down.
He had visited the country in 2020 and remained in touch with some of the people he met there, but the departure of US forces and the return to Taliban rule in 2021 made him curious about what had changed since his initial trip.
“I wanted to see how some of my friends are coping now under Taliban rule,” Ilicic told CNN.
“There is always curiosity to see what the real situation is like, compared to what we all see and hear in the Western media.”
However, even though there are many transportation options, he knew it would not be easy.
Going to a ‘no go’ place
The largest hub for international flights into and out of Afghanistan is the United Arab Emirates: There are 16 flights a week to Kabul International Airport from Dubai and another three from Abu Dhabi.
Beyond this, there are direct flights from Istanbul, Turkey, as well as from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad and from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Land borders with Uzbekistan, Iran and Tajikistan are also open.
However, travelers cannot simply come to the airport and board a plane. Citizens of most Western countries need a tourist visa, and there are fewer Afghan embassies around the world than two years ago.
Ilicic, who is Croatian, said he was able to obtain a visa within 24 hours at a cost of $500 at the Afghan embassy in Dubai.
And there’s more to consider than just getting a visa. While the Taliban have brought relative peace to Afghanistan, there are still security issues, with regular attacks claimed by the terrorist group ISIS.
As international sanctions bite, famine, collapsing health care and deteriorating sanitation take their toll, as do the frequent natural disasters that strike the country.
Travelers who choose to go to Afghanistan may not be supported by their home country if something goes wrong or they need help.
The United States closed its embassy in Kabul in August 2021, and a Level Four Do Not Travel travel advisory remains in effect.
A statement from the State Department said: “Travel to all areas of Afghanistan is unsafe and the risk of kidnapping or violence against US citizens in Afghanistan is high. The US government is unable to provide emergency services to citizens in Afghanistan and Our ability to assist detained US citizens is extremely limited.”
The UK also strongly advises its citizens not to travel there.
For a traveler who is determined to go to Afghanistan, travel insurance is available, but there may be caveats or higher costs.
“The vast majority of travel insurance policies sold will not provide coverage and the policy is void or void if you go to a country that is on a government ‘Do Not Travel’ status,” Andrew Jernigan, CEO of the insurance company Insured travel. Nomads, tells CNN.
In situations like these, Insured Nomads offers a “World Explorer Hotspot” plan that starts at $810 per individual for a week. The plan includes what the company describes as “24/7 special operations and crisis response” and “kidnapping and ransom services.”
So what’s it really like to visit now? Although the situation can be resolved on a daily basis — especially during the winter and with a Taliban-imposed ban on women aid workers only deepening the crisis — those who have made the trip say there have been positives.
James Willcox, co-founder of tour company Untamed Borders, has been leading groups in Afghanistan since 2008. He made his first trip under the new Taliban rule in the fall of 2022.
“Overall, the place feels and is a lot safer than I’ve ever worked there,” Willcox says.
Although this may seem strange to outsiders who have seen images of the fighting on TV, Willcox says that “in terms of security in Afghanistan, the main anti-government group now is the government.”
Moreover, the regime change had the unintended side effect of making some parts of the country more accessible to visitors.
As a result, he and his clients have been able to visit more parts of the country than they could before, namely the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
The Untamed Borders group stayed in a variety of accommodations during their visit: hotels in larger cities, apartments in rural areas, and even a night camping in open tents in the Bamiyan Valley, most famous for the colossal Buddha statues that were destroyed by The previous Taliban government in 2001.
While there were restaurants and cafes open in Kabul and other cities, the group ate dinner at their homes to avoid going out at night in rural regions.
Willcox also asked the group to travel in regular cars instead of tricked-out SUVs or Jeeps. “About 95%” of the cars in Afghanistan are Toyotas, especially models like Corollas and Camrys, so he knew his customers would attract less attention by using the same types of vehicles.
Ilicic and the driver and translator he hired stayed in locally owned hotels and small houses. He says he loved one of Afghanistan’s national dishes, kabuli pilaw, a lamb and rice pilaf, and ate it “every day”, while also picking up kebabs and street food in Kabul.
The second time around
Making their return visits, both Willcox and Iličić were able to visit new regions of the country, and both crossed off a bucket list item by going to the Minaret of Jam, a 12th-century structure in the remote province Ghor which was the first in the country. UNESCO World Heritage Site.
However, there were last-minute wrinkles. It is common in rural areas to request permission to visit from the local leadership, which was complicated on Fridays when everything is closed for the Muslim day of worship.
Security checkpoints also remain a constant reality of life in Afghanistan.
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 they were before, only with the Taliban patrolling them instead of foreign military personnel or the Afghan National Army.
“Obviously nothing has been rebuilt (because) there’s no money. There are Taliban flags around, but other than that, everything looks pretty much the same,” Willcox says. “And at the checkpoints, one of the most striking things is that the Taliban fighters had no interest in us.”
Ilicic thinks 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 represent themselves as peaceful people (so) they let me go to all the destinations I planned to go. The Taliban of 20 years ago didn’t care what the world thought of them. This version, Taliban 2.0, They are try to send a good image of themselves to the world.”
Arash Azizzada, co-director of the non-profit organization Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, agrees with Ilicic’s assessment of the Taliban, but for very different reasons.
“The Taliban regime is a traitor around the globe and desperate for any kind of positive media or positive portrayal of what is a brutal and disastrous reign,” says Azizzada, who is Afghan American.
He believes foreign vloggers and influencers going to Afghanistan under the current regime are participating in “cruelty tourism”.
“At best, these travel vloggers who visit Afghanistan are clueless and naive,” says Azizzada. “At worst, they are useful idiots whose opportunism helps whitewash the Taliban’s horrific crimes.”
For women, a different story
There’s a reason Ilicic, who often travels with his wife Andrea, has only visited Afghanistan.
The Taliban have increasingly restricted women’s public sphere since taking power, barring them from workplaces, educational institutions and even public parks.
Unsurprisingly, clothing — particularly headgear — is a common question for potential tourists who contact Untamed Borders.
“It’s up to the guide to make sure our female tourists are respectful,” says Willcox, the tour leader. “Boys are responsible for maintaining certain values and if they don’t, they are shamed.”
Willcox and his colleagues bring with them suitable clothing to clothe the male and female travelers. Due to local laws requiring women to have a male companion, they ask female guests not to leave their guesthouse alone.
Still, Willcox says, in some ways women have different kinds of freedoms as tourists in Afghanistan. They can freely mingle and chat with local women, which men are extremely discouraged from doing.
Every trip has its pros and cons, but those who have been there say visiting Afghanistan is still something for the most intrepid travelers.
“Even though Afghanistan is not the most dangerous country in the world, it is still not safe,” says Ilicic. “My advice is: do thorough research, get a very good local guide, respect the culture you’re visiting, be kind to people (and) follow the rules.
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