Is Afghanistan safe to visit 2023?

I spent roughly the entire month of October and the beginning of November 2023 travelling around Afghanistan. Was it worth visiting? Absolutely! Was it stress-free? Certainly not. While I definitely wouldn’t recommend it for a family holiday, Afghanistan is possible to visit, and for the adventurous, it’s likely to be one of your most rewarding trips. But is Afghanistan safe to visit? After all, the Taliban now controls the country. What was my experience like with them? In this blog I hope to cover these topics.

nuristan afghanistan safe
Me in Nuristan, one of the most remote places in Afghanistan.

“Now is the safest time to visit Afghanistan in the last 40 years!”

I stand by this statement. It certainly isn’t the safest country in the world. ISIS still has a rural presence and bombings still do occasionally occur. However, this is the safest Afghanistan has been to visit since the Soviet invasion in late 1970s. That’s because the war has finally ended. Before the Taliban takeover, coming across the Taliban in the country was one of the risks that a traveller might face. Many foreigners were kidnapped, killed etc. However, with the Taliban now in control and seeking international recognition, their motives have changed. They are the ones protecting you and, in fact, they are actually encouraging international tourism.

So, is Afghanistan safe? Well, it’s certainly safer than before.

How did the Taliban treat me?

In general, most Taliban members were respectful and on many occasions even hospitable with us, offering us food, tea and even accommodation (though we didn’t take up this offer). However, my travel partner, Anna, was mostly ignored by them, as she was a female. In one specific circumstance, when trying to get special approval for a female to visit Band E Amir lake (currently banned for women), the man in charge of giving permission even refused to meet with us, simply because he didn’t want to be in the room with a lady… at least that’s how it seemed!

However, I do believe that my interactions with the Taliban were made easier because I can speak intermediate Farsi. Dari (a dialect of Farsi) is the most widely spoken language in Afghanistan, and many Taliban members know how to speak it. As such, they tend to get quite happy simply at the prospect of being able to communicate with me. Furthermore, I learned some basic Pashto greetings (the native language of most Taliban members) which definitely made them feel more comfortable in my presence.

Did anything bad happen whilst you were there?

One incident with the Taliban occurred when Anna was feeling car sick and decided to sit on the front seat beside the driver. While this was not at all an issue at most Taliban checkpoints, one certain checkpoint did have an issue with it. It ridiculous to him that a woman was sitting in the front seat, and also sitting beside an unrelated man (the driver). Scandalous! So, he ended up calling Taliban intelligence. After a non-violent confrontation and rude behaviour with our Afghan friends, they let us go. It potentially could have ended up worse (temporary detention etc.). It’s important to keep in mind, though, that such experiences are the exception, rather than the norm.

Furthermore, two bombing attacks happened in the country whilst we were there, both in areas that we travelled to (though not at the time of bombing). Both attacks were directed towards the Shia Hazara people, with the first targeting a mosque in Pol e Khomri city, and another targeting a gym in Dasht e Barchi area of Kabul. I believe both attacks were attributed to ISIS. Such events do make you worry, but they are still so much more rare than they were before the Taliban takeover. Afghanistan is not 100% safe but it is getting so much better.


As annoying as Afghan bureaucracy is, it is essential to get permits for every province that you want to visit. It took us hours and hours to complete this process in Kabul (for free). You can learn about how to do that on this website. Travelling without the correct permits is risky and there are stories of travellers that have been detained by the Taliban for lengthy periods of time for this reason.

Officially, you should first obtain permits from the Ministry of Information and Culture in Kabul. Then, once you arrive in the province, you should register with their regional branch. However, in most cases, we didn’t register upon arrival in the provinces, and simply showing the permit from Kabul was sufficient. This doesn’t mean that I recommend this – just because we got away with it doesn’t mean that everybody will!

What can I do to minimize the risks?

Firstly, I believe it’s better to try to blend in. Or, if that’s not possible, at least try not to stick out toooo much. For men, this means buying Afghan clothes and perhaps limiting your time in public when walking around with a backpack. For women, this means wearing conservative clothing and letting your male travel companion take charge of most social interactions. This might not sound ideal, but it’s the done thing in Afghanistan.

Secondly, I believe it’s smart to register yourself with the Taliban’s Ministry of Culture and Information in every province you visit. This will ensure that you won’t get in trouble with local authorities. Furthermore, it will make Taliban security forces aware of your movements, so they can keep you safe if need be. The reason that we didn’t always register was because we were sick of the bureaucracy. Waiting in offices for hours on end isn’t so fun.

Thirdly, if you’re not experienced with dealing with such complicated and conservative societies and perhaps you don’t have any Persian/Pashto language skills, then it’s probably a good idea to get a guide. A good local guide will always ensure that you are safe. They will also make sure that interactions with the Taliban all go smoothly.

If you take these points into account, then I believe that for you, Afghanistan is safe.

I want a guide in Afghanistan. Who do you recommend?

I personally recommend Explore Afghanistan Tour Agency. I met with their owner and employees in Kabul, and they were very professional and knowledgeable. Oh, and also, super fun! Furthermore, visiting Afghanistan with them is safe.

You can contact them on their Facebook page by clicking this link, or by messaging them on WhatsApp on the following number:

+93 78 140 6446

Tell them that you read Xavi’s blog and I’m sure you’ll get a good price.

Afghanistan is safe with Explore Afghanistan Tour Agency
Anna and I with the best guides in Afghanistan – Ali Reza and Yousef

Don’t forget to follow my journey on Instagram! @travelling_the_unknown

How to Visit Nuristan, Afghanistan.

After spending an entire month travelling across Afghanistan, Nuristan was easily one of my favourite places to visit. This mountainous province is not only a natural gem, but it is also home to people of a unique culture and ethnicity. Many of the local residents have blonde hair and blue eyes, and the pine forest scenery is unlike anywhere else in the country.

Me sitting with old men during my visit to Nuristan
Me with some old men in Shtiway village

What makes Nuristan so interesting to visit?

Nuristan was in fact the last province of Afghanistan to convert to Islam, which happened just over 100 years ago after defeat at the hands of Amir Abdulrahman Khan, who supposedly forced local residents to abandon their ancient religious beliefs in place of Islam. Before converting, however, this region was known to outsiders as “Kafiristan”, which roughly translates to “the land of the infidels”.

Many local Nuristanis, until this day, resemble Europeans in race. Blonde hair, fair skin and blue eyes are not uncommon. Some people say that they are descendants of Alexander the Great and his army, while others say that they are descendants of the Arabs. I personally think the first theory is more plausible as Nuristanis don’t look like Arabs!

Children in Nuristan
Children with European features in Nuristan

Nuristan is also extremely remote. By bird’s eye, it’s only 100 kilometres from Kabul. And yet it takes two full days to reach there by road. Hence, this isolation keeps the culture more intact and the region less developed. For a visitor, it gives you a unique glimpse of what the past looked like for much of Afghanistan.

How to visit Nuristan by public transport?

Firstly, it’s important to get travel permits as a foreigner to travel around Afghanistan, including to visit Nuristan. The rules are always changing but you can find up to date information on this website. Once you’ve got your permits, it’s possible to reach Nuristan by public transport, but there aren’t any direct routes. So, you’ll first have to go from Kabul to Jalalabad, and then to Asadabad, and from there you’ll be able to find a ride to Parun, the capital of Nuristan. The whole journey should take about two days. Here’s exactly how you can go about doing it.

  1. First, go to Pol e Mahmoud Khan in Kabul. Here you’ll be able to find shared taxis to Jalalabad. Here’s the location:
  2. After arriving in Jalalabad, go to this location where you can find shared taxis to Asadabad:
  3. Now, you should spend the night in Asadabad, as you won’t find any transportation to Nuristan at this time. On one of the main squares in Asadabad, you’ll find many affordable hotels and guesthouses:
  4. The following morning, go to this location: . You will find many people shouting “Parun”, where you’ll have to wait for the car (or pickup truck) to fill up with passengers/goods. The ride to Parun should take around 7 or 8 hours, but it’s extremely scenic and you’ll enjoy the views on the way!
view of Asadabad
View from our hotel in Asadabad

Where to stay in Nuristan?

There’s only one proper hotel in Nuristan, so unless you’re content with sleeping in a restaurant (many offer accommodation), then you don’t have much choice. Google Maps doesn’t show roads in Parun so I can’t show you where it is. The name is “National Park Hotel and Restaurant”. I’m sure your driver will know where it is. Below is a list of room prices and services offered by the hotel (auto-translated from Persian). Although we didn’t use it, the tour guide service seems to be very well priced!

Nuristan Hotel Services

How to travel around Nuristan?

So, once you’re there, how are you actually going to get around? There isn’t any public transport between the villages. So, we negotiated with our driver that took us to Parun from Asadabad to stay with us for three days, driving us around to wherever we wanted and basically acting as our local tour guide. He took us on a beautiful hike nearby Parun and drove us to some amazing locations (I’ll explain more about that soon).

You could also try hitchhiking. There isn’t much local traffic, but it seems like hitchhiking is very common in this region, especially on the back of pickup trucks. It could also be a very fun experience!

children hitchhiking
Children hitchhiking

Finally, you could talk to the hotel so that they can arrange a guide and driver for you. If you’re a solo traveller, this might end up being quite pricey, but if you’re a group then it could be affordable!

What to do in Nuristan?

When visiting Nuristan, you might be wondering what there actually is to do there. Here’s a list of some of my favourite places and activities in the province:

Go on a hike!

I think this is an awesome way to experience the natural beauty of the province, and you’ll also be able to reach villages that are isolated and completely inaccessible by road. This was one of my highlights in the province. However, I think you should definitely get a guide if you plan to do this! And make sure to bring enough supplies of food and water.

Me hiking in Nuristan
Me hiking in Nuristan

Wama Alcohol Factory.

Okay this might sound like a surprise, but it’s not a real alcohol factory, at least not anymore! In the village on Wama, you can take a road to the top of the mountain, and under the trees, in a forest, you’ll find some historical ruins. These ruins represent an old alcohol factory, which was used to make wine and other drinks as recently as 150 years ago. The scenery in this area is also stunning, with some of the best mountain views you’ll get in Nuristan, with amazing Autumn colours as well. However, the road to get here is soooo scary!!

Old alcohol factory in Nuristan
These stone ruins were previously used to make wine.

Drive to Shtiway:

This village is located at the end of the road, close to the border with Badakhsan province. The nature here is also gorgeous, but it’s arguably the village people that make this place so interesting to visit. Just wondering around and meeting the locals in Shtiway and neighbouring villages is so fun, and they are all so photogenic as well! Keep in mind that there aren’t any restaurants over here so you should bring some food with you from Parun.

A girl wearing a colourful dress in Nuristan
A girl in Shtiway

Bow and arrow!

Shooting with bows and arrows in a popular sport in Nuristan, and you can do it yourself on the edge of Parun. However, we didn’t manage to do it because we were told that it’s only common in the summer season, and you won’t find many locals taking part in this tradition during the rest of the year.

What’s the Taliban like in Nuristan?

In general, they treated us pretty well. Actually one kind of funny experience happened during our hike, when we randomly came across a Taliban military base, which was a unique structure. It was basically a tree house complex. They actually invited us in and let us take pictures.

Taliban mountain treehouse
Taliban mountain treehouse with flag

We did have one issue with the Taliban, though. When driving back to Asadabad after our trip, Anna (my travel partner) was feeling car sick so decided to take the front seat next to the driver. At most Taliban checkpoints this was no issue, except at one. This man got very angry that a woman was sitting at the front, and next to a non-related male! He called the intelligence services and made a big deal out of this. But after ten or fifteen minutes we were allowed to go, and no other checkpoints had an issue with it.

In the future, we may run tours to Afghanistan, as we currently do in Syria and Iraq, so be sure to check our departure dates by clicking this link. If not, are you’re still confused about how to visit Nuristan solo, then we can help organise a guide for you. Message me on WhatsApp at +447905681636!

Visiting Iran? Essential apps you MUST download.

Iran has apps for everything! When it comes to booking domestic trains, flights, buses, hotels and more, almost everything can be done online in Iran. For travelling in Iran, I believe these apps are essential. Yet unfortunately, they don’t tend to be tourist friendly, with payment methods only accepting Iranian cards due to sanctions, and with little English information available. That’s why I’ve put together this article, to guide you through the process, and to help you find out what the essential apps are when visiting Iran.

It’s important to mention that in Iran, most Western websites such as Instagram, WhatsApp, Telegram etc. are blocked, meaning you’ll need a VPN to access them. Many VPNs are also blocked, so I recommend downloading more than one just in case. For me, ExpressVPN (paid) worked well on Android and my laptop, but not on iPhone. Orbot, which is a free VPN, usually works if you use a “Bridge Server” in the settings of the app, but otherwise will not work.

Where can I download Iranian apps?

Because of sanctions and Iran’s isolation, most Iranian apps are not available on the App Store. That means that the easiest way to download Iranian apps is by downloading the Iranian app store, known as “Bazaar”. You can download it by clicking on this link. Once downloaded, just type in the desired app into the search bar and click download.

Taxi Hailing Apps (ESSENTIAL!)

Snapp (Persian: اسنپ!)

This is Iran’s most famous taxi hailing app, and it basically the country’s equivalent to Uber. It is one of the most essential apps when visiting Iran. Prices are much cheaper than hailing a taxi from the street and it is very convenient. Taxis are very cheap! When I say very cheap, I mean, you probably won’t spend more than 1 USD on a 45 minute taxi ride. And it’s also very safe! You can also book hotels, flights, buy travel insurance and access other services through the app.

TAPSI (تپسی)

Tapsi is an alternative to Snapp, but it’s got one feature which is really cool that Snapp doesn’t have, which is super convenient if you’re not travelling alone. You can book inter-city taxis. For example, we booked a ride with Tapsi from Tehran to Kashan, and as a group of 4 people, we paid the equivalent of 3 USD each for a ride of about 3 hours. This door to door service is super convenient, but if you’re travelling solo then it might be above your budget. 12 dollars for a 3 hour taxi ride is still much cheaper than in practically any other country, though!

Directions and Local Transportation Routes

In Iran, if you try to get public transport directions from Google Maps, it won’t work. That’s why you should download an Iranian app called Neshan (نشان). When you enter your starting point and destination, the app will show you how you can get there by public transport, which will help save you money on taxis!

Hotel Booking and AirBnb equivalent

There are so many websites and applications that you can book hotels through in Iran including Snapp (the taxi hailing app), Alibaba, and more. However, you will need to use an Iranian bank card to book due to sanctions. This isn’t an issue, as Iranian people are very friendly and you won’t have an issue asking someone to book for you and giving them cash. However, I often found it cheaper to find the hotel numbers on Google Maps, and then call the hotels directly and negotiate the price. This lead to much cheaper prices than could be found online.

If you’d prefer to stay in an apartment, you can easily book in a similar manner to AirBnb. We did this regularly in Iran, with many places offering very good prices! Here are some apps/websites that you could use to book these apartments:

Jajiga (جاجیگا)

This website specialises in villa rentals, but you’ll also be able to find rooms and apartments for rent. You’ll also have to pay online with an Iranian card, but the process is just as easy as Airbnb is.

Jabama (جاباما)

Personally, this was one of my most common methods of booking accommodation in Iran. I found prices for apartments to be fantastic, especially if you’re travelling with one or more people.

Jabama is one of the most essential apps for travelling to Iran
In Kandovan, we got ourselves a luxury cave apartment from Jabama!

Flight Booking

Because of sanctions, it’s impossible to book flights with Iranian airlines using foreign cards, so you’ll also have to ask an Iranian friend to help you book here if you plan to fly with a local airline. This applies to both domestic and international flights with Iranian airlines, which can often be much cheaper than international ones.

Strangely, booking flights last minute tends to be much cheaper when booking Iranian airlines than it does in advance, which works on opposite logic to basically all international airlines. So, I recommend for most flights to book only two or three days in advance. So what app/website can you book with?


In my opinion, this is the best website for booking flights with Iranian airlines. You can easily see the prices and how they differ on different dates, and the booking form is simple to fill out. When I booked my flight with Zagros Airlines from Tehran to Tbilisi, it only took me about five minutes to do online. You can also book trains, hotels and buses with Alibaba, but I personally think that other websites are better for that. In general though, Alibaba is one of the most essential apps for travelling to Iran.

Bus Booking

Many websites allow you to book intercity buses within Iran, including Alibaba, but I personally have my favourites, which I think are easy to use and show reliable schedules.

Payaneha (پایانه ها)

I regularly used this website when booking buses within Iran and I always found it to be reliable with the lowest prices and easy to use.

Safar 724 (سفر724)

This is a good alternative to Payaneha. While I didn’t use it whilst in Iran, I know many Iranian friends that use it.

Train Booking

For booking trains, make sure you book well in advance (at least 3 days in advance) as trains in Iran tend to get full very quickly! While there are many websites and apps that sell train tickets, I do not recommend using any of them except for the Iranian Railways official website! That is because they often sell train tickets which do not exist due to glitches and you will be refunded the money. To be more certain, make sure you book using the following website:

The website, however, doesn’t work from outside Iran, so you will have to wait until you arrive, or ask an Iranian friend to book for you.

Boat/ Ferry Booking

Last but not least, I have seen almost no information in English online that is up to date about booking international ferries from Iran. Iran has several international ferry routes, such as the ferry between Bandar Abbas and Sharjah, UAE, and from Bandar Lengeh to Dubai, UAE. There are also ferries to Kuwait from Khoramshahr. Actually you can easily buy the boat tickets online from many different websites. I personally bought my ferry ticket from Bandar Abbas to Sharjah from the following website:

It was very easy, I just needed to borrow my Iranian friend’s card, as usual. The ticket cost around 3.7 million toman (at the current exchange rate 74 USD).

Too complicated?

If this all sounds too complicated, you can get a local Iranian tour company to book everything for you. Although they will probably take a hefty commission. In any case, we soon plan to run our own tours to Iran, so make sure to keep up to date by checking out our tour schedule (currently limited to Syria and Iraq).

History of Arba’een – the world’s LARGEST annual pilgrimage

Many people know that the Arba’een pilgrimage to Iraq, is the world’s largest annual public gathering. In some years, the city of Karbala hosts more than 20 million visitors, such as in 2022, as reported by Al Jazeera. But this was not always the case. In fact, during the rule of deposed President Saddam Hussein, this entire pilgrimage was banned. In this article, I’m going to be going through the history of Arba’een and what it actually is.

Arba’een literally means ‘forty’ in Arabic, marking the end of the forty-day mourning season following the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and an extremely important figure for Muslims, especially those of the Shi’ite sect. To mark the end of the mourning period, pilgrims make their way to the city of Karbala, where Imam Hussein (Husayn) was martyred. Currently, most people start their pilgrimage in the holy city of Najaf, about 75 kilometres away, and walk to Karbala from there. However, some people walk all the way from Basra, in southern Iraq, or Mashhad in Iran, which is thousands of kilometres away. That’s a long way to walk!

The sight of the pilgrims walking to Karbala is truly one to behold. Volunteers set up these little tents and shelters beside to the road in order to provide the pilgrims with free food, water, accommodation, and more. Imagine feeding 20 million pilgrims, for free! That is a lot of food.

But what is the history of Arba’een?

How did the pilgrimage start?

Most people believe that one of the prophet Muhammad’s companions named Jabir Ibn Abdallah was the first person to make the pilgrimage to Imam Hussein’s burial place, 40 days after his martyrdom in the year 680 AD (which is the year 61 in the Islamic Hijri calendar). Jabir Ibn Abdallah’s pilgrimage was all the way from Medina in modern day Saudi Arabia to Karbala, a distance of around 1300 kilometres. However, in the centuries to follow, the tradition of walking to Karbala was not followed by many.

So if people weren’t doing this pilgrimage historically, why are so many people doing it now?

In the year 1901 (1319 Hijri), an Iranian scholar known as Sheikh Mirza Hussein Noori decided to revive the pilgrimage first undertaken by Jabir Ibn Abdallah. He gathered his friends and family to join him, and with a total entourage of about 30 people, he embarked on a journey by foot from Najaf to Karbala. After completion, he decided to do this pilgrimage every year until the day he died, bringing more and more people with him.

Over the years, the numbers of people undertaking the pilgrimage grew, but it wasn’t ever more than the amount of people going to Haj, which is a mandatory pilgrimage for Muslims that can afford it. In recent years, however, going to Haj isn’t easy for everyone. It’s expensive, requires a visa for most, and often you have to be put on a waiting list for years before being accepted. For most of the world’s Shi’ite Muslims, Arba’een is much easier to attend – Iraqi Shi’ites just have to travel within their own country while Iranians and Lebanese don’t have to travel too far either. Visas (if required) are also easier to get than Haj, with many Pakistani and Afghan Shi’ites also attending.

For decades, the Arba’een pilgrimage was banned!

During the rule of Saddam Hussein, Arba’een was completely banned, meaning that during the 1980s and 1990s, very few people took this route by foot. That doesn’t mean that pilgrim flows reached zero, however, with some people still undertaking the pilgrimage in secret, often taking smaller roads where the authorities might not have so much surveillance. My Iraqi friends tell me that during this period of time, those undertaking Arba’een would risk arrest and disappearance, with fears that many of them may have been killed.

Since the US invaded Iraq in 2003, pilgrims started to return to this famous route. Despite low pilgrim numbers during the years of Coronavirus border closures and lockdowns, pilgrim numbers are still rising year on year. During the rest of the year, Karbala has a population of less than 1 million. So you can only imagine how crowded it gets when there are 20 million people in town! The history of Arba’een was quite humble compared to it’s modern day numbers!

Interested in experiencing Arba’een?

Well, we run tours to Iraq during Arba’een, where you’ll be able to walk from Najaf to Karbala with the pilgrims. Non Muslims are welcome, as are people from every nationality. Check out this page for tour dates and information, both to Iraq and Syria.

Is Tourism in Syria Ethical?

In the last year or so, several news agencies have written articles about the recent post-war “tourism boom” in Syria. Many of them claim that tourism in Syria is not ethical, seeing as tourist visits, especially those of influencers, amount to “whitewashing” the Syrian government, as claimed by The Washington Post. But, as someone who has been running tours to Syria, as well as to Iraq, since 2019, I have seen first-hand how tourism has affected these countries in a positive manner. I argue that tourism in Syria gives hope to the Syrians that are resident in the country, it reduces international isolation, and it has positive effects of the economy. Not only do I believe that most news outlets ignore the effects of tourism on Syrian people living inside Syria, but I also believe that they are being pushed by a certain agenda. I will get into this more later in the article.

Tourist group in Aleppo, Syria, 2022
Me and a group of tourists in Aleppo in 2022

Hope and effects on the economy.

While the Syrian government might benefit from the image of foreign tourists travelling through Syria with the government being the guarantor of their safety, the Syrian people benefit as well. The vast majority of Syrians living inside Syria are thrilled by the idea of tourism returning to the country. In my years of experience running tours in Syria, I have not witnessed one single incident of anomosity or contempt directed towards us. Quite the opposite – people welcome us with open arms and are intrigued to see us! In fact, most Syrians I talk to view tourism as a sign that the country is returning to normality after such brutal years, and it is a sign of hope in an otherwise gloomy economic situation.

Tourism is not only about appearances but also real economic impact. Of course, the tourism sector is still a fraction of what it was before the crisis, but if the current trend continues, it’s only going to get bigger. The changes I’ve seen within the last few years are visible. New hotels have sprung up, tourist guides who’ve been idle for years are now working again, and other projects are starting up as well. Syria was an extremely touristic country before the war, with many people earning their livelihoods in this sector. In fact, in 2010, there were 8.5 million foreign visitors in the country. I believe this can happen again.

Palmyra, previously one of Syria’s most visited places before the war, now seems like more of a ghost city. It was heavily damaged and most of the residents fled. However, for the increasing number of returnees, it’s important to note that tourism is, slowly but surely, picking up again. A tourist restaurant in a Bedouin tent has even opened up beside the ruins, and it’s only a matter of time before a hotel starts to resume operations. These things are good for Syria. They employ locals, and make an impact, however small, on the dire state of the Syrian economy today. Thus, from the economic aspect, I would argue that tourism in Syria is ethical.

Palmyra tourist tent 2023
This man has recently opened a Bedioun tent for tourists just outside the ruins of Palmyra, Syria.

Reduced international isolation.

Those that oppose tourism in Syria are vouching for Syria’s continued international isolation. This has been a major factor in the current suffering of Syria’s people, its economy, and it stifles opportunities. Syria’s diplomatic, economic, and to some extent even educational isolation has resulted in extremely difficult international money transfers, large obstacles in foreign trade and the lack of foreign embassies, meaning that Syrians have to travel abroad for visas that they have a high chance of being rejected for anyways. Many notable foreign websites are also banned in Syria, such as Wikipedia, Duolinguo, ChatGBT, almost all Western banking applications, and many educational websites. This is not the doing of the Syrian government, but rather because those businesses/organisations ban users with Syrian IP addresses. The lack of foreign tourists is just another form of international isolation.

Much of this isolation is a direct result of sanctions. Heck, even helping Syria produce electricity is sanctioned by the UK and EU, which aren’t even half as strict as the US sanctions. Tourism to Syria, however, is one of the few activities not sanctioned or restricted by foreign governments, thus providing a window for Syrians to the outside. Even though tourism in Syria is not sanctioned, there is a media campaign against it. Let’s not let that media campaign succeed!

But let’s face it, there are some Syrians, predominantly living outside of the country, who say that tourism in Syria is a bad thing. I believe that their hatred for the Syrian government is so bad that it overlooks the positive affects of tourism for Syrians living in Syria today. For them, anything that benefits the Syrian government is bad, often even if the regular Syrian benefits as well. They advocate for the international isolation of Syria, which does no good for the people living there today, regardless of your views on the government.

We’re changing the image of Syria.

Internationally, Syria is viewed by the majority of people as a war zone filled with extremist Islamist groups. When the word “Syria” is mentioned, it’s common for the words “ISIS” or “war” to come to mind. While the recent history of Syria has been brutal – an unimaginable war of immense suffering – there is so much more to the country than that. Most foreigners find it hard to believe that many Syrian women do not wear headscarves and that booze-filled nightlife is not only available, but world-class. The charm of Syria is hard to match, with the architectural wonders of old Damascus, and ancient soap-making processes of Aleppo being jaw-dropping for even the most well-travelled visitors. Such beauty deserves to be known, and not just domestically. We aim to show our visitors as many different sides to Syria as we can. The war is certainly one side that we wish to show, but it’s one of many. We hope that in the future, when the word “Syria” is uttered, a more diverse set of ideas spring to mind.

So, they’re not propaganda tours?

Many people claim that, seeing as you must have a licensed Syrian tour guide accompany your visit to the country, that means that they’re going to prevent you from seeing the reality, or that they will paint a distorted image of the country with a political narrative. At least on our tours, this certainly isn’t true.

Firstly, independent travel (without a tour guide) is not impossible, though it is difficult. See this article to know more. It’s not as if the government is mandating a “chaperone” to every foreinger, controlling what they see, as some articles have claimed. There are no-go areas, though, of course. The war has not ended in all of Syria, and even in parts of the country that it has ended in, memories and tensions are still fresh, so you shouldn’t expect to have the travel freedom that the country once offered before the war.

The tour guide “rule” is only present if you enter the country with help of a tourism agency, but not if you enter with an individual invite. But even if you do have a tour guide with you, they are in general great people which have decided to study tourism and take a tour guide examination in order to work in this field. This means that the quality of tour guides in Syria is very high. Most of them have studied tourism for years in order to provide you this service. Their knowledge of Syria’s historical and cultural sites is exceptional. I’ve become good friends with many tour guides in Syria that I have worked with over the years and for them, the more tourists, the better.

It’s true that some tour guides will try to tell you their political opinions, but nobody tries to act like “everything in Syria is okay”. It’s not, full stop. I can’t speak about other tours, but on our tours to Syria, we don’t attempt to gloss over the suffering of the Syrian people. You will see suffering, you will see destruction, and you will see locals queing up for hours in the bread lines to feed their families. But as I’ve said, this is one of multiple realities in Syria – there is so much happening in the country at the same time. You will also see historical sites, traditional marketplaces, restaurants full of life and even night clubs. Such vibrant life exists right next to the destruction, and we intend on showing you both.

In nature, our tours are not political. We’re not pushing the agenda of any government or organisation. Our aim is to show you the Syria that we love, whilst not ignoring the harsh realities that the majority of Syrians have lived and continue to live. Whatever conclusions you take away will be yours to make.

But I have a Syrian friend that can’t go back…”

It’s true that many Syrians living abroad are unable to return to their homeland, for multiple reasons. The most common reason, especially for men, is military service, which is compulsory for all males who are not the only son of their parents and have not paid a military expemption fee. Others cannot return for political reasons, while others, if holding refugee status in Europe or elsewhere, would lose that status by doing so, and thus don’t visit. As such, your privilege to be able to visit Syria is something that many Syrians abroad don’t have. I personally feel very priveleged that I can visit/live in Syria without the issues that many Syrians face. This is something that might make you feel guilty, and rightly so, but as I previously explained, there are many positives regarding tourism in Syria as well. In my opinion, these positives outweigh the negatives, thus making tourism in Syria ethical.

“Dark tourism is super unethical, though”.

One’s intentions and sensitivity to the war and suffering is extremely important. Learning about the war and visiting sites of destruction isn’t necessarily wrong, in my opinion. But one must be extremely sensitive. Taking selfies in front of destroyed homes, as if they were a tourist attraction is completely insensitive to the family that lost that home, or the people that died there. If your intention is to disrespect Syria and the suffering of the Syrian people, then you certainly shouldn’t come to Syria! Tourism in Syria is ethical only if your intentions are in the right place. Furthermore, if you’ve got your own political agenda then you should also think twice before coming to the country.

So what is this media agenda you’re talking about?”

As I mentioned in the introduction, many news outlets, predominantly Western, are pushing the narrative that visiting Syria is unethical due to tourism whitewashing the Syrian government. It’s been a common theme for them to interview Syrian activists living abroad talking about how tourism in Syria is benefitting the government, something which they argue is unacceptable. But what about those who support tourism in Syria, which I believe are the majority of Syrians, especially those living inside of Syria, where the direct consequences of tourism are felt. Where are the interviews with them?

I’ve actually been interviewed a few times by Western outlets about my tourism work in Syria, most notably by Kaamil Ahmed for The Guardian and Charles Davis for The Daily Beast. Kaamil Ahmed and I spent around an hour talking about tourism in Syria, where he asked me whether I believe tourism in the country is ethical or not. I responded with much the same arguments that I’ve conveyed in this article. I accept criticism should I be given the right to respond. However, not a single one of my arguments that I conveyed during the interview was explained by Mr. Ahmed in the article. Furthermore, not a single Syrian in favour of tourism was interviewed to give their opinion, which, as I’ve said, I believe to be the majority, especially among those inside Syria. In addition to this, there were factual inaccuracies in the article, such as how Jaabar citadel “is again becoming a top tourist destination”. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as the citadel is located in areas controlled by the SDF, which is completely off-limits to tourists, and extremely difficult for other Syrians to access as well (requiring sponsorship etc.). Maybe these Guardian journalists should do a little more research before publishing!

I believe that far and large, Western media gives platform to those in support of Syria’s international isolation, which includes tourism, disregarding the opinions and lives of people living in areas of Syrian government control today. So it’s hardly surprising that they argue that tourism in Syria is not ethical, despite its potential to be a means of revival for the country.

Beit Al Wali Hotel, Damascus. Tourism in Syria
An old Damascus house converted into a hotel known as Beit Al Wali

All in all, I argue that tourism in Syria is not only ethical, but it is one of the means for the country to improve. It brings hope to Syria for a return to normality, while helping create livelihoods for those working in the tourism sector, which ultimately has a knock-on effect to other sectors of the economy. Furthermore, it helps reduce Syria’s international isolation, while giving the outside world a fuller picture of what Syria really is – more than just the Islamist hellhole that so many believe. While you might feel guilty about visiting a country that so many locals are unable to visit, this is a negative which I believe is outweighed by the positives. With that being said, if you have a political agenda, or you see destroyed homes as a “tourist site”, then perhaps visiting Syria right now isn’t the right thing to do.