By Josh Smith and Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - When police stopped a van that was traveling across central Afghanistan to the western city of Herat, they were in for a big surprise: it was full of Western tourists.
The visitors' presence in one of the world's most dangerous countries made headlines on Thursday after their vehicle, now under police escort, was caught in a suspected Taliban ambush.
It is debatable whether the presence of security forces endangered the tourists' lives or saved them - at least five foreigners were slightly wounded.
But their trip across a stretch of country widely seen to be risky underlined the dangers such travelers face, and the difficulty Afghanistan's stretched police force has in protecting them.
"Because of the police they're alive," said a senior Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Otherwise they would all be dead."
In the van, which was badly burned in the attack, were six Britons, two Americans and a German, part of a steady trickle of visitors lured by the stunning beauty of the landscapes and landmarks and, in some cases, by the thrill of danger.
In this instance, the group had set out from Bamiyan, once home to giant Buddha statues carved into the cliffs until they were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.
They were driving west to Herat, an ancient city near the Iranian border renowned for its citadel and blue-tiled mosque.
"CHECK IN WITH US FIRST"
The Afghan government welcomes travel to what it considers safe areas, where Taliban militants, seeking to topple the government and return to power, are not deemed a threat.
Even then visitors are encouraged to fly, rather than drive between destinations whenever possible, said Zardasht Shams, deputy minister of Information and Culture.
"The (convoy) in Herat was not coordinated with us," he said, adding that many tourists visited the country last year without incident. "We do encourage tourists to come and visit Afghanistan, but after checking with us first."
After an Indian woman was kidnapped from downtown Kabul in June, officials sparked controversy by telling expatriate residents to hire guards or use police escorts.
Bamiyan, which also boasts Afghanistan's first national park, is seen as relatively secure, the Interior ministry official said.
"In such places we have no concerns," he told Reuters. "But when they go elsewhere, we expect them to take extra measures. Unfortunately some do not."
SOME READY TO GO BACK
Several tour operators catering to Westerners said they had not made the drive from Bamiyan to Herat for several years because of concerns over security.
"The main issue over the last few years has been driving between cities," said James Willcox, a founder of British-based Untamed Borders.
The company offers hiking in the remote Wakhan Corridor in the northeast, horse trekking and even heli-skiing in the rugged Afghan mountains.
But the last time it offered the driving route to Herat was in 2009.
"When we first started, we could drive from Kabul to Herat along the central route ... but as time's gone on, security has gotten worse between cities," Willcox said.
The handful of operators who bring international tourists to Afghanistan say increasing violence has led them to curtail some travel in recent months.
Major suicide bombings have rocked Kabul this year, and areas of Helmand in the south and Kunduz in the north are regularly hit by fierce battles between troops and insurgents. Smaller, more sporadic attacks occur across the country.
Willcox said he had not had any cancellations yet since Thursday's incident. Untamed Borders took around 50 clients on trips to Afghanistan in 2015 and expects to escort another 60 this year, he added.
For Jonny Blair, who went to Afghanistan with Untamed Borders in January, the lure of the country's famous sites and natural beauty overrode any fears.
"I grew up in Northern Ireland, so I'm used to seeing guns," he said.
Local residents were nothing but welcoming, Blair said, and he never felt threatened. "I definitely would go back."
OTHERS STAY AWAY
Marc Leaderman, head of group tours at Wild Frontiers, another British firm, said his company had no plans to bring any visitors this year.
"We've noticed a distinct drop in interest, and that's combined with our own concerns over the decline in security," he said. "This is the first year in a while that we haven't brought at least 40 to 50 people."
Foreign tour operators deny that they cater to thrill-seekers.
"We're not about taking people to dangerous places but rather introducing them to an amazing country," said Leaderman.
Wild Frontiers' clients in Afghanistan have ranged from people in their 20s to those in their 80s, and included a British military history buff and another individual who had first visited the country as a hippie in the 1960s.
"Everyone seems to have their own reason for coming to Afghanistan," said Leaderman, who acknowledged the trips were usually against the advice of the British Embassy.
"It's not something people take lightly."
The tragedy of the attack in Herat, Willcox said, was that it would lead to more headlines framing Afghanistan as nothing other than a dangerous place.
"Central Asia is not really on people's radar, and they usually only know about Afghanistan because of the conflict," he said. "But that's just one part. It's a very interesting and beguiling place to experience."
(Editing by Mike Collett-white)