Are AJK and GB ready for tourism?

Many in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan rely heavily on tourism for their livelihoods but health experts worry about the spread of virus if the region is reopened for tourism

People associated with the tourism and hospitality industry have been suffering huge financial losses as a result of restrictions imposed to control the pandemic. Continuous lockdown and the absence of tourists have brought the whole industry to its knees. Poor business has forced even the Pearl-Continental Hotel, Muzaffarabad – which previously used to be overbooked during this season – to shut down its operations indefinitely.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s announcement regarding the reopening of tourism industry following a meeting of the National Coordination Committee has received a mixed response in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB).

The people of the northern parts of Pakistan, including AJK and GB, heavily bank on domestic tourism for their livelihoods. Despite the Covid-19 threat, most of these people are keen to make use of summer tourism opportunities.

Over the years, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan have emerged as major tourist destinations for domestic and, to an extent, foreign tourists. They boast mountainous sites and scenic landscape, and adequate security. In 2018, over 1.4 million tourists visited the AJK. The influx of tourists then increased to 1.5 million in 2019. It was expected that around two million tourists would visit the AJK in 2020, says Midhat Shahzad, the tourism secretary in the AJK government. Most of these visitors used to come from Sindh and the Punjab where temperatures in the shade hit 45 degrees Celsius and more.

Keeping in view the potential increase in the number tourists heading to the region, massive infrastructure was built in recent years, particularly in areas like the Neelum Valley and Poonch. The government of AJK had renovated several tourist resorts at Tatta Pani, Kotli, Poonch and in Muzaffarabad district. Speaking to The News on Sunday, Shahzad says that the AJK government has conducted a detailed survey on the development of the tourism sector in Azad Kashmir to make further improvements. However, she says, the Covid-19 has slowed down all development plans and brought the tourism industry to a halt.

Given the background, the Poonch Chamber of Commerce and Industry had urged the government of AJK to provide extraordinary grants to the tourism sector for its revival. The proposals included a tax holiday for several years, subsidised electricity bills and soft loans.

The influx of tourists increased to 1.5 million in 2019, and it was expected that around two million tourists would visit AJK in 2020 says Midhat Shahzad, the tourism secretary in the AJK government.

The AJK government is still unsure about reopening tourism in view of the growing number of Covid-19 cases in the region. As many as 444 coronavirus positive cases have been registered in AJK since the pandemic broke out. Over 200 patients have so far recovered completely. In all ten districts of the AJK, 58 quarantine centres have been established to admit people thought to be infected by the disease.

Health experts are worried about the possible spread of coronavirus in the region if tourism is reopened. Speaking to TNS, Dr Hadia Aziz, a consultant at the Combined Military Hospital, Rawalakot, says that the tourism industry shouldn’t be reopened immediately. “Healthcare facilities, especially ICUs are scarce in AJK. We have very few ventilators,” she says. “Now that community transmission of the virus is rampant we should be careful about this plan of reopening tourist destinations. It might put the entire area at risk and we do not have sufficient facilities to provide healthcare to a large number of patients.”

Unlike AJK, Gilgit-Baltistan has documented 952 cases of coronavirus so far and the number of new cases continues to increase.

Since last November, almost all tourist resorts have remained closed, initially due to the winter season and later, due to the pandemic that halted movement of people and rendered hundreds unemployed. Hoteliers, tourist operators and transporters in Gilgit-Baltistan are eager to open their businesses, threatening to launch a region-wide protest if hotels and resorts are not reopened. A leading Urdu newspaper from Gilgit, Daily K2, has reported that the industry leaders have said they would be forced to lay off over 20, 000 employees if the situation continues.

The outgoing chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan, Hafiz ur Rehman, has opposed the decision to reopen tourism calling it an irresponsible move which might put people’s lives in danger. Rehman fears that local health facilities are not enough to handle a surge in coronavirus resulting from the arrival of tourists from major cities of Pakistan or even abroad. His five-year term ends on June 24 following which an interim setup will replace his team and conduct the elections.

Tourism has always been one of the major sectors contributing to the economy in Gilgit-Baltistan. According to the GB Tourism Department as many as 60,000 individuals are associated with it. A steady rise has been witnessed in the Gilgit-Baltistan tourism sector in recent years. The Government of Pakistan’s decision to introduce an e-visa system has been a boon to the tourism industry. The GB authorities were expecting over 2.5 million visitors in 2020 and an income around Rs 550 million. However, given the pandemic situation, many construction projects at entry points to these regions have been sealed. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)-related projects have also been stopped for the time being as most of the Chinese workers have left the country.

The writer, an analyst, divides his time between Islamabad and Rawalakot. He can be reached at [email protected]

Are AJK and GB ready for tourism amid coronavirus