Must-See Kabul: There’s (Almost) An App For That

by Adrianne Jeffries

When entrepreneur Eamonn Carey started talking about building a Kabul travel guide iPhone application, everyone – friends, family, potential sponsors, the Afghanistan Tourist Office – thought he was joking. “The initial reaction was one of total surprise in almost every instance,” he said.

But Carey and his business partner Conor Purcell were completely serious. Kabul has robust 3G coverag, because of the reconstruction money from the military, NGOs, and the return of wealthy expatriated Afghanis. BlackBerrys, Nokias, iPhones and Android phones are abundant, and download speeds are fast, Carey said.

A Kabul app wouldn’t — and clearly couldn’t — just be for tourists, according to Carey, so it will feature maps, news, security tips, updates on roadblocks and checkpoints — as well as the usual suggestions for hotels and things to do. They expect that troops, aid workers, diplomats and contractors stationed in Kabul could use the app — and their families and friends at home could download it to get a glimpse of daily Kabul life. People in the U.S. and other countries — where Kabul has been in the news since the Afghanistan war began a decade ago — might download the app out of curiosity.Though Carey recognizes that tourists are hardly flocking to Afghanistan — the U.S. State Department cautioned Americans against traveling to Afghanistan as recently as August because of the risk of suicide attacks — Kabul has started to take off as an under-the-radar travel destination for some people. Kabul is relatively calm compared to the rest of the country, but dangerous enough to confer bragging rights, he said, and some adventurous tourists — mostly from Dubai — have started to take three- to five-day trips there, helped by daily flights to Kabul from from Frankfurt and Dubai.

Carey hopes Kabul will become the next Kurdistan, an autonomous region in Northern Iraq that has had some success selling itself as a tourist destination.

The app will also syndicate content from local bloggers, media sources and possibly Twitter. Content will be updated constantly, “so that it’s not sending someone down a blind alley or worse,” Carey said. “It’s more of a living guide to what’s going on there.” That could be a big help in the early stages of the app: the Google Maps map of Afghanistan is 90% blank, so the biggest challenge will be building a layer with details and street names on top of the a skeleton of roads and city names.

Carey, who lives part-time in London, and Purcell, who lives in Dubai, are old friends who founded URBN Travel at the beginning of 2010, intending to build mobile travel guides for iPhone and Android with a focus on the Middle East. There aren’t that many apps for places like Dubai and the U.A.E., even though advertising budgets there are high, Carey said.

The company splits its focus: one side puts together apps for big brands like Crocs; and the other comes up with less commercial projects like the Kabul app. “The day-to-day stuff pays our salary and funds the other section of the business, which is the slightly more silly ideas that we have,” Carey said.

URBN could launch the app on its own, but they have been looking for a local sponsorship to help make some money back on a loss leader that Carey hopes will be “phase one” of a plan to make unconventional apps for that part of the world. An Afghani sponsor could also supply content or help translate the app into local dialects, he said.

They are tentatively planning to have an iPhone version of the app approved by Apple and in the App Store in January, Carey said, barring delays due to Apple’s approval process or unforeseen complications. URBN may follow it with BlackBerry, Nokia and Android versions if there is enough interest, he said.

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