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Aiming to regain tourism prominence
June 19 (Chicago Tribune): Big dreams are reflected in the azure-hued shimmer of these pristine mountain lakes: ambitions of becoming a tourist paradise.
With the dedication Thursday of the first national park, made up of six linked lakes rimmed by breathtaking travertine cliffs, officials voiced hope that visitors might slowly begin to return to Afghanistan.
This nation hasn't had a place on the tourist map since the 1970s. In those days, it was a popular stop on the hippie trail, because of its Silk Road exoticism.
U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry was among the dignitaries who joined in the dedication of Band-e-Amir National Park, telling an audience of VIPs and villagers gathered under a makeshift tent that the occasion marked a "proud moment for Afghanistan . . . a reawakening."
The park lies in the central province of Bamiyan, known for the otherworldly beauty of its landscape as well as a notable lack of insurgent violence.
The creation of a national park at Band-e-Amir is the culmination of 35 years of efforts by Afghan and international groups, repeatedly derailed by war and threatened at one point by a huge proposed hydroelectric project. That was headed off largely through the efforts of the province's strong-willed female governor, Habiba Sarabi, who was present for the dedication.
Only a trickle of international tourists can be counted now, but Bamian has long been a steady draw for Afghan families, along with foreign aid workers and other expatriates.
"I think more and more people will come as they realize this is a very secure corner of the country," said Sher Husain, whose hotel overlooks the empty niches where the Buddhas once stood.
The park's scenic charms are such that they give rise to a rarity in Afghanistan: the impulse to frolic. At lakeside, the ambassador clambered into a pale blue swan-shaped pedal-powered boat and took vice president Karim Khalili for a spin.
Band-e-Amir is relatively inaccessible; getting here requires a bumpy 10-hour road trip through two mountain ranges from the capital, Kabul, about 110 miles to the east. A U.S.-funded road project is expected to eventually shorten that journey to three hours.
Marnie Gustavson, an American who runs a nonprofit organization in Kabul that works with disadvantaged Afghans, recalled visiting the lakes as a child in the 1960s with her parents, who were development workers. She described bathing in the crystalline lakes after a long, dusty journey as "magical."
"Some tourist development is good, because it will help the local people and the local economy," she said.