Despite daily headlines about violence, political strife, and assorted perils, travelers to the world’s hot spots are undeterred. The risks of such travel include: that it burdens travelers’ home governments in the event of an emergency; that it emboldens rogue regimes like North Korea by providing them valuable foreign exchange and more than a hint of international legitimacy; and that it can put local tourism workers at risk, making them targets due to their proximity to Westerners.
Carmen Gentile, a conflict reporter and author of the upcoming book Blindsided by the Taliban, told me many of the tourists in Afghanistan are “older, interested in history, have a yearning to do some adventure travel.”
“There are people who have already trekked in Mongolia or walked the length of the Great Wall of China and are looking for that next great adventure—an adventure that their friends have definitely not taken,” he said. “They want the ultimate bragging rights. Where else are you going to have that kind of adventure, but a place like Afghanistan or an active war zone?”
To determine what motivates such travelers, I reached out to Untamed Borders, a group that specializes in adventure travel to, according to its website, “some of the world’s most interesting and inaccessible places.” James Wilcox, a cofounder of the group, said in an email that he couldn’t talk because he was guiding a group of four Canadians and an American through Afghanistan. “We probably guide 60-80 people in total in Afghanistan each year,” he said. “No idea on total tourist numbers but they are, not surprisingly, small.”
Wilcox put me in touch with Martin Parnell, a Canadian runner who ran the Marathon of Afghanistan in Bamyan, and traveled to the legendary Afghan city with Untamed Borders. Parnell has run hundreds of marathons around the world, and he raises money for various causes during his runs.
“This is not a tourism thing,” he told me. “For me, it was a social-activist thing," adding his trip “wasn’t to look at the forts.”
Parnell said he was recovering from a clot in his brain in 2015 when he read about the inaugural Marathon of Afghanistan in Bamyan, which included 10 international runners. Among the runners, he said, was the first-ever Afghan woman to run the 26.2-mile course. Parnell said the challenges she faced while running motivated him.
“For me, when I’m running it’s weather, and hydration, nutrition,” he said. “For [her] it was verbal and physical abuse.”
Parnell said that story made him promise himself that if he recovered, he would run the marathon in Afghanistan to support female runners in the country.
“Of course, the moment you have that kind of thought, it throws up a lot of questions,” he said. “We hear the news all the time about Afghanistan, and terrorists, and the bombing. ... I didn't even know if it was feasible.” But, he said, he did his “due diligence,” adding: “I wouldn’t have gone on my own. ... I’m not an independent traveler. I feel it’s important to, me anyway, go with a group.”