With Eid ul Azha two days away, tourists are planning to throng the country’s beautiful northern resorts but will the traffic situation ensure a pleasant trip?
The family of Muhammad Talha, a businessman in Islamabad, is planning to go to Murree Hills during the Eidul Azha holidays. His children are excited but the family is reluctant -- because of only one reason: the heavy traffic of tourists during the holiday season.
During times of festivity when thousands of people from Punjab and Islamabad travel to Murree Hills spend hours on roads, waiting to reach their destinations due to ineffective management of traffic, bad road planning and incompetent drivers.
"Travelling to Murree Hills or crossing Abbottabad to reach the mountains in northern Pakistan during festival holidays has become dangerous now because of the traffic influx," says Talha.
Abbottabad is the gateway to the beautiful northern areas of the country.
Two months ago, during the Eid ul Fitr vacations, more than 400 traffic wardens were deployed on the 50 kilometre-long route from Murree Hills to Islamabad. According to the traffic police reports, around 350,000 vehicles travelled from Rawalpindi to Islamabad and vice versa and about 200,000 to Murree in these holidays. Officials say that the frenzy of traffic produced what was arguably the worst jam on this route.
In Abbottabad too, traffic jams lasted for hours, despite the deployment of police from other districts. On regular days, the journey from Rawalpindi or Islamabad to Abbottabad takes two hours but on occasions such as Eid holidays, it can take around six hours or even more.
"There are always special plans to manage traffic during days of festivity. On August 14, there were 300 traffic wardens deployed to control the situation," says Muhammad Yousaf, a traffic official in district Rawalpindi who deals with Murree traffic.
"Murree has two routes -- the old road and the Expressway -- but the problem is that thousands of vehicles come out on the roads. Another very important issue is that many drivers park their vehicles on the roadsides causing such gridlocks," he adds.
For Yousaf, the biggest challenge on the Murree route is dealing with parking. "The number of vehicles entering Murree in a day during holidays is in thousands despite the limited capacity of the narrow road."
"Residents of Abbottabad face difficulties during peak hours of traffic, and the situation worsens during days of festivity when people throng the northern areas via these badly engineered roads," says Farooq Shah, a senior traffic official of the city. "More than 100,000 vehicles crossed the city for the upper destinations during the last Eid holidays."
He says that governments should focus on widening roads, constructing bypasses and having better road engineering. "Another problem is that people from Punjab come mostly on their vehicles and are not trained to drive on mountainous terrain. They often turn on their air conditioners which heats up the engines of their vehicles, forcing them to stop on these already narrow roads."
To add to this, sometimes local tour operators stop working during the holiday season because of the traffic mismanagement. "We do not offer service during Eid holidays because of the rush. Most of the time is spent on roads and the customers are not happy," says Waseem Hussain, a Rawalpindi-based private tour operator.
"The biggest issue is that the government has put in minimal effort to manage these areas, explore and make alternate routes and destinations; and have effective planning to control the influx," observes Mujtaba Rathore, another tour operator.
Murree’s appeal as the most approachable destination makes it a hot favourite and that is why it is jam-packed during holidays. But, the government’s traffic management seems to be out of touch with what is happening and leaves much to be desired. In fact, this is not just the case for Murree -- even the traffic in Islamabad on Peer Sohawa road from the city to Daman-e-Koh, Monal Restaurant has seen an upward trend in the past few years. Long queues and traffic jams are becoming a common feature not just on holidays but even sometimes during weekends if the weather is pleasant.
"Unless administrations of these cities seriously think about expanding these roads, explore substitute sites, have effective management and inculcate a better road sense in the people, having better trips to these sites during holidays will be difficult," says Asim Mehmood, a resident of Islamabad, adding that he always avoids taking his family to these sites during festival holidays to avoid inconvenience and unnecessary stress.
"But this is not the way! This discourages tourism at the end of the day," he laments.