The well-heeled find a watery escape in landlocked Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan – A new fad is sweeping the capital of landlocked and war-weary Afghanistan: swimming pools.

The city has at least eight massive new pool clubs. Extras usually include saunas, Jacuzzis, massages, smoothies and sandwiches.

“Sure, we don’t have beaches like Brazil, or clubs like Dubai. But we have created our own beaches and clubs here with these pools,” said 25-year-old college student Mirwaiz Taraki between back-flips at the Nazari Sauna and Pool in Kabul’s posh New City neighborhood.

Enthusiasm like his has helped propel the swimming pool business into a multi-million dollar industry, according to insiders.

Yahya Husseini, 30, is one of Kabul’s newly moneyed swimming pool barons.

A former accountant who made a fortune in property after U.S.-backed forces toppled the Taliban, Husseini started his watery quest in 2011 after taking a small business training course with American aid agency USAID.

Informal surveys showed him that there was a big demand for swimming pools, because hotels were tough to get into and private pools too expensive to build in crowded residential compounds.

“Even well-to-do people with money to spare told me they were going to Tajikistan, Iran and Dubai to enjoy the pools there,” said Husseini as he stood poolside at his Lajward Swimming Complex, his eyes still red-rimmed from his latest dip. A huge Michael Phelps poster loomed over a pool lined with blue and white tiles. “They assured me if I invest, it would surely be profitable.”

People play at a public swimming pool in Kabul on Oct. 4. Omar Sobhani / Reuters

They were right. He and four partners broke even just eight months after raising almost a million dollars in 2011.

Entrance fees for the male-only establishments run at around 600 Afghanis (about $10), which is extremely expensive for a country where people on average earn less than $100 a month. But Kabul is a relatively wealthy city with a thriving middle class looking for ways to spend their cash and free time.

“We’re doing very well … so is everyone else,” said Husseini, whose pool is on the middle-class Jalalabad Road neighborhood. He estimates the pool club sector will go from being worth $10 million today to $50 million in the next couple of years.

Husseini admits his business and related ones have not reached their full potential yet because half of the market – women – are shut out. While segregation of the sexes is the norm in Afghanistan, little girls are allowed into most private pools.

“From a business point of view, there is a market for women,” he said. “Many of them called and showed interest when we started this pool.”

“But it will take time for us to build the infrastructure, like women lifeguards, for a women-only pool. We plan on this in the next three to four years,” he added.

In the elite New City area, Nazari Sauna and Pool manager Ghulam Reza, 32, passed the buck on the issue.

Youths slide down a huge water slide at a public swimming pool in Kabul on Oct. 4. Omar Sobhani / Reuters

“If the government plays their role and makes such a facility, we will welcome that 100 percent,” said Reza as he counted wads of cash-slips. “But right now it is not the time for women to come swimming.”

Taraki, the back-flipping student, held out hope that mothers, sisters and daughters would one day be able to attend.

“Maybe next year or in [the] near future, females will be coming here soon, God willing,” he said.

Challenges endemic to the war-weary and often lawless country remain.

A two-layer security check in Husseini’s establishment couldn’t stop a group of heavy-set men from breaking club rules and bringing their weapons inside.

Meanwhile, only one teenage lifeguard could be seen on duty for a group of around 50 swimmers during what was a slow weekday. Some young boys who apparently could not swim had unfastened their life jackets, and nobody was swimming in their lanes.

Everyone seemed to be following the shower-before-diving and no-shoes rules, however.

Husseini remained confident as he showed off his first-aid cabinet and new computer.

“The Afghans are a strong people ... proactive and sports loving,” he said. “They’ve fought off so many challenges, I’m sure they can handle a little swimming pool.”

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