Preventing disaster

January 23, 2022

The lives lost in Murree are a reminder that ineffective policies and delayed actions can have jarring consequences

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“We are stuck on the road and cannot open the doors of the car. Now we are switching on the heater. We are going to sleep until help arrives,” Kohsar Police Station House Officer (SHO) Shabbir Tanoli quoted ASI Naveed Iqbal as saying in his last call. The call was made at 4am on January 8. He was one of the 22 tourists, including his four children, a sister, niece, and nephew, who breathed their last in a snow-induced traffic jam in Kuldana near Murree. The late ASI said there were children in all the vehicles he could see and they were crying. He said there was nothing to eat or drink.

Murree was crowded with tens of thousands of people pouring in, creating traffic jams exacerbated by a heavy snowfall. Among those stuck and forced to sleep in cars that night were 22 tourists who lost their lives. Had preparations been made and adequate measures taken beforehand, no lives need have been lost.

Many locals took part in the rescue operation. Some of them offered food and shelter to the stranded tourists. At the same time, some tried to take advantage of the situation and evacuated the trapped cars after charging thousands of rupees from the owners. Into the bargain, some hotel owners exploited the situation by charging wildly inflated nightly rates for each room. The tourists were also charged exorbitant rates for food and water.

Who is to blame? Among the many shortcomings hindering the realisation of full potential of Pakistan’s tourism sector is the lack of trained human resources, poor infrastructure, and lack of basic facilities for the tourists. All of these the PTI promised to resolve in its manifesto. Apparent lapses on part of the government aside, the elephant in the room remains the way the hotels charged stranded tourists up to Rs 40,000.

Hotel and Restaurant Act 1976

The Tourism Department consists of three organisations in charge of Archaeology, Tourism Development Corporation of Punjab (TDCP) and Department of Tourist Services (DTS). Hotels and restaurants are regulated by the DTS under the Hotel and Restaurant Act 1976. According to the Act, running unregistered hotels and charging exorbitant rates are punishable offences. The fines cannot exceed a thousand rupees. Interestingly, the penalty amount has not been revised.

After the 18th Amendment, the federal government cannot impose emergency measures without the relevant province’s consent. The Tourism Ministry has ceased to exist and the responsibility for the DTS regional offices in all four provinces has been handed over to the provinces. These offices now work under the respective Tourism Departments. They have no formal connection with the DTS office in the federal government. The devolution of powers has brought new challenges for the tourism sector.

A number of issues arose during the transition, including the settlement of assets between federal and provincial governments, assuring the adjustment of employees working for the ministry and the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) working under it, establishing a policy framework and representing the tourism sector at the international level, and complying with international conventions signed by the federal government and licensing tourism industry players. The idea was to strengthen the federating units. The 18th Amendment aimed at empowering the provinces to make the necessary decisions at their level.

The Punjab got only 24 DTS employees. Out of those 13 seats have been vacant due to non-recruitment. The agency responsible for approving and regulating hotels, restaurants, and travel agencies across the Punjab is therefore currently staffed by only 11 employees, reports journalist Syed Khawar Abbas. In light of the fact that the Hotel and Restaurant Act 1976 gives DTS responsibility for hotel and restaurant regulations, it has over the years taken responsibility for the regulation of travel agencies as well. This has overburdened the department. Sources say that Murree does not even have a dedicated DTS office or employees and thus no one in particular to check the rates charged by hotels in the area.

To date, meanwhile, no attempt has been made to amend the 1976 Act. Asif Chaudhry, appointed by the PTI government as the chief minister’s adviser on tourism in 2019, amended this Act. However, political differences prevented the draft from becoming law. Raja Basharat, the law minister, belongs to the same constituency as Asif Chaudhry. According to sources, the newly amended law was implemented as an ordinance twice, but given the non-approval by the provincial assembly, it ultimately expired. Currently only 1,800 to 2,000 hotels in the Punjab are registered. There is no one to regulate them.

The PTI promised to transform the country’s tourism industry and increase its direct contribution to GDP in a bid to improve Pakistan’s international image. Like some other promises, it failed to fulfil this one. Poor tourists had to bear the brunt of the government’s failure. In the meantime, a committee has been formed to investigate the lapses that led to the death of at least 22 tourists in Murree. Chief Minister Usman Buzdar has announced plans to upgrade the administrative infrastructure in Murree, elevating it to the status of an administrative district, building new police stations, and building two new parking lots in the town.

The writer is a freelance contributor

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