By organising various summer activities and festivals, the management in Swat is sending out the message that the area is peaceful again
The picturesque Kalam valley and Mahudhand lake in Upper Swat valley celebrated the Swat summer gala that attracted thousands of people from across the country for the third running year after the district was cleared of militants and peace was restored as a result of the military operation launched in the summer of 2009.
First inaugurated by the Pakistan Army in 2012 with support from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government, the summer festival has grown in its capacity as a genuine tourism event that offers a number of exciting adventure sports, entertainment and cultural activities.
Col. Aqeel Ahmad Malik, public relations officer (PRO) for Pakistan Army in Swat, termed the summer gala an important factor in rebuilding tourism, one of the main sources of economic activities in Swat besides agriculture and foreign remittances. "Summer gala in Kalam and Mahudhand are part of many activities that we have been organising over the past three years in our efforts to revive tourism in Swat. These festivals are connected to other similar events like snow festivals in winters and sports gala," he added.
Together with the Provincial Tourism and Archeology Departments, Pakistan Army has successfully attracted tourists from as far as Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Sialkot and Rawalpindi. Col Aqeel spoke high of the efforts of hotel associations and the archeology departments in the aforementioned cities. "Swat tourism is entirely different than other tourist spots in the country. Its tourism is not just due to its beautiful landscape, which many rightly compare with the scenic beauty of Switzerland," he pointed out.
"About 40 per cent of the Swat tourism depends on archeology. It attracts national and international tourists alike. Apart from an influx of tourists from KP, we were able to motivate many tourists in different cities of Punjab and Karachi through a campaign with the help of hotel associations and archeology departments there to visit Swat," he explained.
Col Aqeel quoted the media as estimating that 500,000 tourists visited different areas of Swat this summer. Many people were visiting Swat with friends and families during Eidul Fitr. A large number extended their stay to join in the festivities of the summer gala in Kalam and Mahudhand. Others went back to their cities of origin before coming back to Swat for the summer festival.
During the four-day mega event, the crowd-puller adventurous sports included para-jumping, para-gliding, tent-pegging, jeep rally, archery, rock climbing, cycling and motorbike racing. Entertainment items like motorbike jumps and acrobats, trained dog and drill show, boating, fishing, remote-controlled toy thrills and kite-flying, military band display and gymnastic and judo karate also attracted the attention of visitors.
Cultural displays at the gala included Khattak, Chitrali and other regional dances, folk songs, stalls of local handicrafts and calligraphy, puppet, magic and musical shows.
A number of tourist information centres were established at important towns on the way to Kalam. At a security checkpost in Dargai, the main entry point to Malakand division, separate information centres for national and foreign tourists were functioning. After thorough security checking, holiday-makers were issued a sticker for their vehicle, making it easy for them to cross all other checkpoints on their way to Kalam or other destinations.
However, the office for foreign visitors often remained idle as only a few non-Pakistanis visited Swat. The reason, according to Col. Aqeel, was the lack of knowledge of people in Pakistan and abroad about peace in the area. "One of the aims of these festivals has been sending out message of peace and normalcy to national and international tourists. We want every tourist to know that Swat is peaceful and that is why such festivals could take place without any security concerns. Unfortunately, the message hasn’t reached out according to our desired speed," he conceded. He added that even in remote places like Kalam, shops remained open and full of buyers as late as 2am in the morning.
Hoteliers in Kalam have been full of praise for summer gala-like events as they guarantee good business for many in the high tourist season. Muhammad Amin, a hotel owner in Kalam told TNS that a large number of guests meant full occupancy for hotels. "We look towards the summers as our earning season. The arrival of guests from other parts of the country means we will have our hotels fully occupied. The hotel and food prices in Kalam are cheap compared to other tourist sites. Our people are peaceful and welcoming and we have an undisrupted supply of locally-generated electricity," he informed.
Although the pleasant weather due to the high altitude, stunningly beautiful sceneries, waterfalls, the majestic river Swat with all its arteries and events like summer gala make Swat a favourite venue for many who want to escape the scorching summer heat of the plains of KP, Punjab and Sindh, the uneasy access to this unrivalled beautiful piece of earth often deters a large number of sightseers who then take to alternative hill stations in other parts of the country.
The N-95 national highway between Chakdara and Kalam is approximately 137.5 kilometres long and could take more than eight hours on a normal day. The structure is in reasonably good condition up till Madyan. However, the road is virtually non-existent beyond that town sited on the banks of river Swat. The remaining 43 kilometres stretch to Kalam usually takes up to five hours and is hard to manoeuver at different places.
A large number of tourists’ complaints were related to the communication infrastructure. People often pointed out to the poor road structure in comparison to the scenic value of the area. One vacationer Najeebullah complained that he had to drive at a dead slow pace when he visited Kalam with his friends to spend the last days of Ramazan. "You have to be extremely careful while driving on this road. Dodging pits, ditches and rocks need extra care and vigilance at all times. It would be great if the government could give due attention to reconstruction of this important public road," Najeebullah demanded.
The Pakistan Army has repaired the 34 kms long Bahrain-Kalam section of the road which had become a jeepable track due to lack of maintenance work over the years. However, it would take some time for the NHA to complete the reconstruction of this important highway.
Muhammad Imtiaz, NHA Project Director for the Jarra- Bahrain section, told TNS the reconstruction work is going according to the plans and will take another year to complete this section. "The reconstruction work is underway in two phases, Jarra to Madyan and Madyan to Bahrain. We expect to complete work on this project by mid-September 2015," he said.
Imtiaz added that the construction work often gets disrupted by landsliding and large number of commuters in summers. "Since a number of construction activities can only be carried out in summer times, winters go without much work. We can only work on the construction of drainage system along roads during winter." He said periodic repair work on the remaining 34 kilometres stretch of the road between Bahrain and Kalam will start soon as tenders have already been advertised.
The KP Tourism Department intends to work on a number of projects in its effort to promote tourism in Swat, Naran and other tourist destinations in the province. Zara Alam, media advisor of the Tourism Department, said such projects were on the priority list of the department. "We have many ideas in the pipeline, including establishment of training centres, tourist attractions, restoration of Malam Jabba resort and chairlifts at Naran," she added.
Malam Jabba, Miandam, Madyan, Bahrain, Kalam, Ushu, Gabral, Mankiyal and Mahudhand are some of the important tourist locations in Swat that are known to visitors from outside the region. However, there are many more unexplored areas that need attention of the government and its tourism department.
Tourism in Swat alone can considerably contribute to the strengthening of the economy, creating jobs and helping in peace-building. It could also play a vital role in highlighting the positive image of the country that often remains hidden from people outside the country for all the wrong reasons.