Meet The Man Running Immersive Guided Tours To Afghanistan From The UAE


Near + Far

2 MAY 2024
Afghanistan travel
Afghanistan is a deeply complex country, marred by years of conflict and unrest, and for many of us, a place we’d never thought to step foot in. But in the Seventies, the country, and its capital Kabul, was a key stop on the ‘hippie trail’, and still today, it’s home to some of the world’s most beautiful natural landscapes – including the Band-e-Amir National Park and what’s left of the Buddhas of Bamiyan – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and former holy site on the Silk Road.

Hoping to change people’s perceptions of the country’s landscape and its everyday people is British photojournalist Joe Sheffer, who founded Safarāt Travel in 2021, shortly after the fall of Kabul. Safarāt aims to help Afghan people tell their stories, earn a livelihood and educate travellers about this complex and troubled, but still beautiful country. Safarāt goes beyond the headlines of the regime and its brutality to an Afghanistan that often gets left behind. Afghans are keen to work and showcase their country, its food, history and landscapes, and Safarāt allows a glimpse into this, from its three-night Long Weekender trip to two-week deep dives into the Pashtun heartlands.

Trips include airport pick-ups and homestays, giving work to local people, and simultaneously showcase the country’s beauty but also highlight its troubles, creating a unique and immersive way of travelling. Women, too, are welcome, and solo female travellers have embarked on Sheffer’s tours thanks to the processes put in place by his team. We sat down with Sheffer to discuss his venture, its challenges, and why, so he says, there’s never been a safer time to explore Afghanistan travel.

Safarat: Afghanistan Travel

Why did you want to showcase Afghanistan in a different light?

I’ve reported on Afghanistan for over a decade and first visited in 2012. I’ve always loved Afghanistan and been fascinated with it. I studied the country at university and always wanted to get into the interior, which was always very difficult. As a journalist, I spent a long time embedded with coalition forces in Afghanistan. Still, I never felt the majority of us could speak to Afghans without the menace of soldiers around, so I wanted to travel deeper, speak to them and hear their stories. When Kabul fell, a huge number of international organisations pulled out of the country. So many people specialising in Afghanistan were left unemployed. The economic situation was awful, so, along with a former fixer who I knew and worked with, we decided to try and tell Afghanistan’s story differently. I decided to start Safarāt to give people an inside view of the country. We encourage people to think of themselves as part of a documentary and to hear Afghanistan’s stories from Afghans.

How have you been received by the travel community? Has there been any backlash?

It is a tricky one, and there are many ethical questions with travelling in Afghanistan right now. Obviously, the Taliban is not an internationally recognised government, and we definitely legitimise them by visiting and putting dollars into the regime. So there’s been a little bit of criticism, but as far as I’m concerned, we’re doing more good than harm in Afghanistan; we’re not just greenwashing the regime. Many Afghans have come to me and said, ‘we’d be delighted to showcase the country, but please tell the truth, there are still problems in our country’. The regime in Kabul is a flawed one, and please tell the truth and don’t use your white privilege to travel where you want, because for normal people, it’s hard. We include homestays and visits to local villages as part of your tours.

Remains of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Bamiyan Valley – destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001
Remains of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Bamiyan Valley – destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001

Can this type of tourism benefit the Afghan people?

It’s very common in Afghanistan for a single person to be the breadwinner for 20, 30, 40 people. So by putting a fair salary into a family, particularly in a rural area, either through a homestay or even for a few days mountain guiding, we can massively improve that families here. For example, we have homestay, and they’re potato farmers, and an entire year’s salary is about USD1,000 – so by coming in for a single night with a group, we’re able to increase their annual salary by 10, 15, 20 per cent for just a single night. We have to be careful, of course, not to create tension in villages and not put everyone in just one village, but this is what we call our ‘conflict- sensitive approach’. Afghans are proud; they don’t want handouts, they want to work and do jobs they feel proud of and that are legitimate. The situation for Afghan women is, of course, terrible, but the men feel like they want to provide for their families, and they’re delighted and very keen to interact with foreigners.

You openly say life for women is terrible. But is there a way this can help women in Afghanistan?

Hospitality is one of the few places where women can actually be employed, and because we have female visitors, then we need to employ females to be with our guests be- cause of segregation. I’m not going to dress it up, the situation of Afghan women is appalling. It’s a source of international outrage, but at the same time, Afghans can’t be punished for the regime’s behaviour.

Do you have women travellers? Can they participate in all the excursions men can?

It’s a big subject. As a traveller and, particularly, a Western traveller, you’re held to completely different standards to Afghan women. And I don’t think that the treatment of our male guests to our female guests is really any different. As a foreign woman, you get a pass to enter national parks and monuments. So, generally speaking, you’re going to get to do everything. Our female colleagues are required to wear a hijab as a minimum, but many of our customers feel happier wearing an abaya.

You’ve said that Afghanistan is much safer under the Taliban regime. How can this be true?

I don’t think there’s been a safer time to visit Afghanistan since 1979, as most insurrections were caused by the Taliban, but that’s not to say there aren’t storm clouds on the horizon. Afghanistan is still reeling after 40 years of war, so we need to tread carefully. There are challenges, but the security situation has improved massively. The atmosphere on the street is good, people are generally very happy to see foreigners, they’re very proud and want to come and visit Afghanistan, which I think is great. Generally speaking, people are delighted, even in the Pashtun South to see you. They want to meet and talk to you.

What is a personal highlight of the tours for you?

So many things we do and show you will tell you more than one story. One is a wall walk, an incredible ancient wall which dissects the mountain that splits Kabul. You’ve got thousands of years’ worth of history; we tend to actually walk up with the Taliban. But you really see the last 30 years of Afghanistan: we see slums, we see evidence of the Bala Hisar, which was the site of the start of the first Anglo-Afghan war. We see thousands of years of history but also modern politics, and you get recent history, modern history and current issues all in one hike. It’s stunning and beautiful at the same time, but we’re talking about social issues. You would do this on our Afghan Weekender trip from Abu Dhabi.

safarat afghanistan travel

Tell us about Afghanistan’s creative scene. Is there an artisan culture?

There’s been big investment in the last 20 years from groups like the Khan Foundation and the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Afghan craft. The legacy of the hippie trail is still evident in Kabul, it’s called Chicken Street and tourists used to flock to it in the Sixties and Seventies before the Civil War, and there are beautiful things to buy. A lot of that has been regenerated over the years, particularly traditional glassblowing nuristani carving, traditional woodwork lattice work that we call ‘jalli’. I love shopping in Kabul, people love the carpets I bring back. Some of my favourite things to buy are yak hair scarves from the mountains of Badak Shan and calligraphy from the mogul period – a skill that’s taught by the Turquoise Mountain Foundation. Beyond that, there are antiquities for sale in Chicken Street and precious stones; a huge amount of the world’s precious gems come from Afghanistan – there is beautiful blue stones, there are emeralds, and rubies. There’a lot to buy.

How do people travel on your tours?

If you were to come on one of our weekend trips, you’d have your own vehicle, and you’d be alone with one of our guides, like Qudratullah Noory, a former fixer who is extremely experienced and has worked a lot in Western NGOs and Western television. If you came up with about longer trips, you’d be within a group of eight to 12. And you would have an experienced journalist, someone like myself, and we would move together and eat together. We’re trying to read some special guests to tell you their stories. You spend most of your time with the group, but there are chances to wander off. We pick you up from the airport, take you to the sights and look after you – it’s the perfect way to see Afghanistan’s story.

Tourists camping beside a river in Bamyan: Afghanistan travel
Tourists camping beside a river in Bamiyan

Afghanistan Travel With Safarat

Key sights

  • Kabul’s old city Bazaar and bird market
  • Hike Kabul’s famous ‘wallwalk’–an ancient wall across Sher Derwaza mountain which dates to the 5th century AD
  • Eat dumplings with pomegranate farmers of Kandahar’s Arghandab valley
  • Wild camp at the base of the remote Minaret of Jam
  • Explore the remnants of America’s longest war against Helmand’s desert moonscape
  • Explore Afghanistan’s cultural capital, Herat
  • Hike the stunning landscape of Band-E-Amir National Park

Safarāt operates tours from three to 14 nights, with prices starting at USD800 (about AED2,950). Price includes accommodation, breakfast, guides, transport, permits and visa support. Emirates and FlyDubai fly direct to Kabul in three hours 20 minutes, with return fees from AED1,900.,, 2024 tours run between May and October.

This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2024 issue of Near+Far

Meet The Man Running Immersive Guided Tours To Afghanistan From The UAE