Our Afghanistan expedition is the adventure of a lifetime – but a lot of team mates have questions about safety and security. Secret Compass co-founder, Tom Bodkin, sheds some light on the most common questions.
Beautiful snow-capped peaks, verdant valleys and fascinating people – Afghanistan is an unforgettable place and one of our favourite expeditions. Excluded from the mass tourism trail, it’s also unfortunately a place that few will ever experience. With a rich and complex political history, it’s often considered off limits to many adventurers. Most of us will have an idea of what Afghanistan is like from the news and media, but it’s hard to truly understand a place unless you’ve had your feet on the ground. Secret Compass co-founder, Tom Bodkin, has spent a lot of time in Afghanistan – here, he discusses the ethical and safety implications of travelling there.
Are there moral implications to travelling to Afghanistan?
When thinking about Afghanistan, post-Taliban, there are two elements to consider. The first one is, what we understand about Afghanistan is what we read in the media. Unless you go there and see it first hand, it’s hard to imagine the reality. But, as humans, we form opinions based on the information we have. It is much better, if you can, to form your ideas once you’ve seen something with your own eyes – to get that first-hand knowledge rather than using secondary sources. There is a lot of misunderstanding around Afghanistan that would be cleared up if people could see it themselves– easier said than done, I know.
Secondly, and most obviously – there are lots of negative elements that the Taliban have brought to Afghanistan, and that dominates the press coverage, but we know very little about any positive things about the country. Tourism used to be much more popular in Afghanistan; the people we work with there remember a steady stream of tourists arriving throughout summer. Many used to make their livelihood from tourism – those dollars would be paid for guesthouses, pack animal support, tour guides, local chefs, local transport, and then it disappeared. So many people lost their livelihoods, and the impact was huge. It’s amazing what the presence of tourism does to local people. I remember visiting South Sudan in 2011, and the locals were so amazed to see us there. They couldn’t believe we’d spend quite a lot of money to travel halfway round the world to see their home. It has a big positive impact, for you and for them. I think those incredible interactions outweigh any negatives.
The best way to support people in Afghanistan is to bring that economic activity back – and tourism does that. By saying “I’m not going to go to Afghanistan because the Taliban are in charge,” we’re removing the support that tourism provided to those on the ground relying on it. The two parts are connected – by going there you can experience the reality of the place and people, and you can help support locals who need it the most.
There are so many positive reasons to go to a place like Afghanistan. We try to build on that, whilst still being conscious and aware of the politics. Our expedition through the Wakhan Corridor is a great example. It just feels so remote – you are on the move for six days before you even start walking. When you reach communities that are four days walk from the nearest road, you feel like you have gone back in time. Culturally, you experience the diversity of the Afghan, Wakhi and Kygyz peoples through spending time in their communities. It is also a tough, challenging trek, at altitude, in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
What would you say to someone who has safety concerns about travelling to Afghanistan?
If someone is considering joining us on an Afghanistan expedition, they’re already a pretty open-minded person, which is great. It’s safer now than it has been at any point since we started Secret Compass – we’ve been visiting there since 2011, and a lot has changed in that time. There are always going to be security concerns about travelling in Afghanistan, but it’s much lower risk than it was when we were previously running trips there. We always ensure we have the right permits and permissions to move around safely. As a company, we’ve been working in Afghanistan since the Taliban take over, taking journalists in and out. We’ve got a really good understanding of how things work there, and that is super important to us. The more we can understand about a country, the better. There are risks associated with every expedition Secret Compass does, but we always do everything in our power to keep everyone safe.
Are there any specific considerations for women considering the trip?
Not specific concerns, it just requires the same level of cultural understanding as travelling in any Islamist country. There are certain rules that need to be adhered to and cultural differences that need to be respected. It’s more progressive than you might first think, but it always pays to check what the cultural expectations are when it comes to dress. Travelling in a mixed group is always recommended, but there is no more risk associated for women.
Afghanistan is a beautiful country with incredible people and unforgettable landscapes. We’re proud to be able to support the Afghan people. All of our expeditions are created with your safety as priority, whilst also delivering a once-in-a-lifetime experience you won’t get anywhere else. We believe, there’s always a way.
You can read all about our Afghanistan expedition here.
For more information or any further advice, reach out to the Secret Compass team.