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Afghanistan's first national park waits for tourists

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"Last year was a particularly discouraging year," says Andre Mann, manager of The Great Game Travel Company in Kabul. "We've decided to give it another year and see what happens. We hope [August] elections stabilize things so that our business can grow."

At its busiest in 2007, his company booked some 300 foreigners on tours of Afghanistan. Last year, the number slipped to 150, and this year he estimates he will only get 80. The other tour operator, Afghan Logistics & Tours, saw a similar falloff from roughly 75 tourists a year to 50 or 60.

Exactly how many tourists visit Band-e-Amir is unknown, with the governor of Bamiyan Province saying 500 last year and aid agencies saying it was thousands. The discrepancy might relate to who is counted as a tourist – many Afghans visit the site, as well as expatriates like Dennis and Lukas, who work in Kabul. The one guesthouse in the park hosts 500 to 800 guests each year.

The potential is much bigger: Crowds thronged here in the peaceful 1960s and '70s.

"We are working to set up the infrastructure to make this sustainable, so it doesn't end up like [overdeveloped] Thailand," says Mr. Mann. "In the '70s it was heading in that direction. The war spared it that, and now we are trying to do it right."

Locals have fond­­er memories – especially of the money tourists brought. Dennis and Lukas's driver, Ezat Ullah, gets $50 a day to bring visitors here. Other Western tourists here recently, Jerome Mathieu and Berengere Travard, say they spent $80 a day on a hotel and meals.

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