Crumbling glory

March 27, 2016

Once frequented by visitors from all over the world, Pakistan’s mountains and deserts are less popular tourist destinations today due to security challenges and a lack of right infrastructure

Crumbling glory

Pakistan’s northern areas should be drawing in millions of tourists each year. They do not. Despite their astonishing beauty and diversity, Pakistan on the whole was able to bring in only 5,634 tourists in 2015, according to figures presented to the National Assembly. In contrast, Nepal, despite being ravaged by the earthquake that hit the country in April 2015, still drew in over 550,000 foreign visitors according to Nepal’s Department of Immigration. This is despite the fact that Nepal is a country of only 27.8 million people with far less diversity than Pakistan.

The lack of tourism has had a profound impact on the lives of people in once popular tourist destinations, including Swat, Chitral, Gilgit-Baltistan and other picturesque tracks that run through the country. The mountain ranges stand silent, almost forlorn, looking down on people who have been deprived of incomes drawn through the hotel industry, guiding and jobs as waiters, horsemen, porters or in other spheres associated with tourism of various kinds.

While climbers had still continued to visit Pakistan, a country in which over 100 peaks above 7,000 metres stand, this number fell dramatically after the massacre of 2013 at the base camp of Nanga Parbat, where 13 mountaineers and a local guide were killed by Taliban gunmen.

Since then, the country’s government has been reluctant to allow in western visitors for fear that they may draw the attention of militants while foreigners of course have been still more reluctant to put their lives at risk.

At the same time, local tourism from urban centres in Pakistan has also fallen. The general perception about safety and security in the northern areas and so many parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is a factor in this as is the failure to provide affordable living spaces and other facilities including transport to tourists.

Booking a trip to a destination within the country can sometimes be just as expensive as and much more arduous than taking a trip overseas. There is no single stop service for families or other visitors and while companies and organisations that which offer package tours or adventure trips have come in, the fears of police about the safety situation in so many parts of the north means that only a small number take advantage of these offers. There is also no mechanism to check on what is being offered, its quality and the safety standard set for operations offering ‘adventure trips’ involving paragliding, climbing, abseiling or hiking.

As a result, fewer and fewer people visit parts of the country which could easily be cut out of a postcard depicting Switzerland or one of the other destinations promoted by global travel agencies. For the people of mountain valleys strung out across the north of our country, this means less income and lives of greater deprivation.

The impact of dying tourism on these people has been studied too little, and beyond the economics, there is also another factor: The lack of people coming in to their towns and villages from outside means that the indigenous people now have far less exposure than ever before to the outside world. What they see comes from the television screens within their homes and often contains a contorted vision of reality. Combined with the extremist ideologies that are still promoted by religious forces in many parts of the country, it is easy to sway mindsets and alter thinking patterns.

We need to work actively to combat this. Older people in Chitral still talk nostalgically of times when foreigners would come into their valley in large numbers and this would help generate money and tell them stories about lives lived in other places. As a result, the older people who interacted with these entrants from different parts of the globe and from within our own country appear to retain more open mindsets -- created by these encounters.

The same holds true for Swat and even the frequently visited valleys that lie above Murree and Abbottabad. The failure to inculcate the need for sensitivity to local norms and cultures in visitors has only made things worse. While tourists generate money, they also bring with them the greater threat to the environment and the traditions of people. The reluctance to protect these traditions, in the case of the Kalash for example, has made them even more vulnerable to the threat of extinction they today confront.

The problem spans out from beyond the mountains. It also affects regions such as Tharparkar which should be drawing visitors from within and outside the country. Yes, some travel to it and to the adjacent Cholistan in the southern Punjab; but local people report that the numbers have dwindled and the consequences of this are the same as those experienced in the north.

The argument from the government holds that as the security situation improves, tourists will come flooding back to the country; perhaps this will happen; perhaps the mountains will once again ring with the hammering sounds of a climber’s pick or the voices of groups walking along remote mountain ways. But this can happen only if we put the right infrastructure in place. It is not simply a matter of holding back the militant threat but also making it possible for people to reach spots across the country with some degree of ease and with less of the hassle that this currently involves.

While Gilgit Baltistan, Skardu and Chitral are still considered relatively safe, the possibility of being stranded there due to cancellation of flights means many are reluctant to make the journey. Yes, the conditions created by the presence of mountains and the weather they churn up cannot be taken away. But better road links and travel services could perhaps convince people there is, quite literally, a way out in case of an emergency.

Creating these perceptions is vital for many reasons. It is not just a question of economic need and use of our country’s diversity to draw in revenue from tourism. There is also the issue of what the increased isolation is doing to our mindsets and to the world’s opinion about us.

The fact that fewer and fewer people of other nations visit Pakistan means their view of the country is shaped by the international media and the images it puts out. These consist too often of terrorist attacks or of drought, flood and other disasters. Pakistan has then been labelled in the minds of more and more people as a country that is simply too hazardous to visit, and this can only worsen problems that prevent the kind of activity that should be seen in mountain valleys no matter where they lie in the world.

Crumbling glory