Naltar Ski resort is expected to increase tourism in the area. But it is still a long way from becoming a popular, oft frequented destination
The less explored Naltar valley in Gilgit-Baltistan is set to become the second ski resort in Pakistan to have a ski chairlift, after the Malam Jabba ski resort in Swat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Situated 36 kilometres north of Gilgit city, Naltar valley is blessed with snow-covered mountains, lakes, streams, flora and fauna. Of the total run of 36 kilometres, 16km can be covered in approximately two hours via a metalled but impaired Gilgit-Nomal road. The remaining 20km, along the left bank of the Naltar river, is fit only for four-wheel jeeps. The only other means of reaching the valley is through a helicopter.
The valley consists of two villages, Naltar Payan and Naltar Bala. The only means of communication in the valley is through the mobile phone service provided by the Pakistan Army signal corps’ special communication organisation.
The population of Naltar is poor and a majority of them work on their small agricultural lands. They grow potatoes once a year between June and October. The fields are covered with snow rest of the year.
Journalist Sultan Shoaib, who belongs to Naltar, says that less than two per cent of the locals earn their livelihood through government employment -- "Most of them are employed by the Pakistan Air Force to work at the ski resort. Others are employed at the two middle-level government schools, an army-run Sher Khan school and a type C dispensary".
The valley was to take one giant leap towards upliftment with a visit of the prime minister, to inaugurate the three-kilometre-long, 180-seater ski chairlift project earlier this month. However, the ceremony could not take place as a Mi-17 army helicopter carrying foreign envoys and their families crashed into the army-run school after developing a malfunction. Seven persons, including the ambassadors of Norway and the Philippines, wives of the ambassador of Indonesia and the High Commissioner of Malaysia, two army pilots and a crewmember were killed on the spot. Initially the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for bringing down the army chopper. Later, it turned out to be a false claim.
Abdur Rahman Bukhari, bureau chief of a local Urdu daily Ba ad-e-Shimal, says Naltar valley is surrounded by mountains and the only road leading to it has more than one police checkpoints. "Taliban have no presence in the area as there is no local support for them. Strangers have to cross police checkpoints to reach Naltar," he adds.
Abdur Rahman says that the area was secured by law enforcing agencies days before the arrival of the dignitaries -- "Security personnel were even positioned on the mountains for the inauguration ceremony. People rushing towards the chopper after the crash shows that it was not a militant attack".
Eyewitnesses at the crash site include first responder Raja Alamdar Hussain who was on medical cover for the VVIP movement. "Our six member emergency team was just 200 metres away from the helipad. Three or four helicopters landed safely before the unfortunate chopper descended for landing," he narrates.
Hussain adds he heard a strange sound coming from the chopper’s engine before it lost control. The pilots desperately tried to land it safely on a mound away from the helipad. "It passed about 40 feet above our heads and hit the nearby school building. We ran towards it and our driver Muhamamd Essa broke a window to pull out the Malaysian high commissioner from the burning rubble," he adds.
The prime minister’s official plane returned to Islamabad upon learning about the incident. The inauguration ceremony of the ski chairlift was cancelled as a result.
The ski chairlift system was donated to Ski Federation of Pakistan (SFP) by a Swiss company and it took nearly two years for the SFP to install the system at the Pakistan Air Force-run ski resort. The installation of the machinery completed in August 2014 and successful test-runs were carried out before the inauguration ceremony.
After becoming functional, the chairlift at Naltar will be the only operational ski chairlift in Pakistan. The one at Malam Jabba was destroyed by Taliban militants in 2009 and is yet to be rebuilt. The chairlifts at Ayubia and Patriata are used only for tourism purposes.
Starting from the PAF base camp in Naltar, the chairlifts continue for three kilometres along the finest ski slope of Pakistan before reaching the Bargo Pass at the top.
The ski chairlift, which will also be used for tourism purposes in summer, is expected to increase tourism. "People of Naltar believe that the chairlift will change the fate of the area by attracting local and foreign tourists. They also hope that the PM would announce the construction of the Gilgit-Naltar road, which would make their lives easier," adds Sultan Shoaib.
Skiing is in the blood of the locals in Naltar. Besides holding the country’s longest ski slope with 2.5 kilometres length, the area also takes pride in producing skiers Muhammad Abbas and Muhammad Karim, who participated in the 2010 Vancouver and 2014 Sochi winter Olympics respectively.
The ski facility in Naltar is used for national skiing championships. It attracts skiers from across the country. The resort could also be used for grass skiing and roller-skating in summers.
Promotion of tourism through skiing is no doubt a promising idea. However, Naltar would become an international skiing venue only if the development of the area is given priority. The road to the valley should be built on immediate basis, alongside, quality accommodation and communication for tourists.