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August 23, 2020

Tourism in Azad Jammu and Kashmir is reviving following reopening of travel after an almost five-month long closure


he Azad Jammu and Kashmir government has reopened tourism in the region lifting an almost five-month ban that was put in place to curtail the spread of Covid-19 across the country. Tourists are now allowed to visit the region with the authorities having put in place an elaborate set of standard operating procedures and safety measures to avoid further spread of the disease.

During the last two weeks, a number of tourists have made their way to the AJK to escape the summer heat of the Punjab and Sindh, where temperatures often reach as high as 45 degree Celsius.

To ensure a safe environment, police and local administration are trying hard to implement the SOPs. Authorities are forcing owners of guest houses, hotels and restaurants to ensure that safety measures are followed.

The tourism sector has emerged as a significant source of employment in the region over the years. Currently, nearly 500,000 people are directly or indirectly affiliated with this sector according to the All Kashmir Tour Operators’ Association. Among various sectors of the local economy, tourism is one of the fastest growing, particularly in Muzaffarabad and Poonch divisions. Due to the five-month long lockdown earlier, and approaching winters (starting in December), locals are now left with only three and a half months to do business this year. Lucrative travel packages are therefore being offered to potential tourists by local tour operators to make some money before winter sets in.

Rawalakot is one of the most beautiful valleys in the AJK, attracting a large number of tourists during the summers. Located some 120 km from Rawalpindi, it takes two and a half hours from Islamabad to reach it by road, and for this suitable public transport facilities are also available.

The vernacular press has reported that over 100,000 tourists have flocked to Rawalakot this year since Eid-ul-Fitr holidays. Tourist places such as Banjosa, Toli Pir, Lasdanna, Devi Gali, Jandali, Hussain Kot, Upper Singola, Bin Bekth, Datot, Topa Soon, Kherian, Trarakhal and Nariyan have attracted tourists since the reopening of travel in June.

Local administration tells The News on Sunday that the arrival of tourists increased phenomenally right after pandemic-related restrictions were lifted by the AJK government. Tourist destinations in Rawalakot and Bagh are mostly located away from the Line of Control. The occasional exchange of fire between the Indian Forces and the Pakistan Army thus hardly affects tourist activities.

Likewise, the Neelum Valley and Muzaffarabad region have witnessed an enormous number of tourists during the last two weeks. According to the Tourism Department in 10 days, over 35,000 tourists visited the Neelum Valley and Muzaffarabad region.

A new tourist destination namely Arang Kel, located at an altitude of 8,379 feet, has become a popular spot for mountaineering, paragliding and hiking. Tourists are turning up at Arang Kel in big numbers despite a large part of the Neelum Valley being exposed to firing from the Indian military posts. The Neelum Valley was considered the most sought after tourist destination till 2018 due to the peaceful situation along the LoC but it has become a frequent target after August 5, 2019, when the Indian government revoked Articles 370 and 35-A of the Indian Constitution, snatching away the limited autonomy and statehood status of the Indian held-Kashmir.

Unlike the past, the district administrations in Muzaffarabad, Neelum, Bagh and Rawalakot have taken special measures to guide and provide facilities to tourists so that no untoward incident takes place. Tourism Department officials are also working on a campaign to attract more tourists to the AJK.

The increasing inflow of tourists has dramatically enhanced the economic activity in these areas. Locals TNS spoke to said that the highest point at Toli Pir had become crowded with tourists. Similarly, a record number of tourists have made their way to Banjusa Lake.

Appreciating the natural beauty of Rawalakot, Asma Raja, a tourist from Lahore, says that the government should provide more facilities for tourists and take immediate steps to improve the Toli Pir road. Toli Pir is a beautiful hilltop area situated 30 km towards the north of Rawalakot city. But the road that leads to this dreamy spot is in a shabby condition.

Ikram Ali who came from Khairpur, Sindh, with his family, says Rawalakot felt like being in heaven with temperatures averaging around 20 degree Celsius. However, Ali complains about the condition of the road near the Azad Pattan, over the Jhelum River, which he says also consumes a lot of travel time.

While speaking to TNS, owners of small hotels and resorts complained that the AJK government was not extending any financial support or waivers in utility bills and taxes. Due to prolonged closure during lockdowns earlier in the year almost all guest house owners have become financially overburdened.

Tanveer Qureshi, who runs a wedding hall in Muzaffarabad, says the government needs to ensure that the AJK Bank grants interest-free loans to tour operators as well as guest house and marriage hall owners – otherwise, he fears, many locals may go out of business.

But with tourists now allowed in the region, health experts express fear that if SOPs are not strictly followed, the tourism sector might become a vehicle for the spread of virus.

Dr Qamar Iqbal, cardiologist at the Qamar Hospital in Bagh tells TNS that while the revival of tourism is a welcome development, there needs to be strict implementation of the SOPs. “New cases have been reported in some districts in the recent weeks,” he says. “The government has to strictly implement the SOPs. If it fails in this regard, this may turn into a nightmare and we will see a rampant Covid emergence.”

The writer, an analyst, divides his time between Islamabad and Rawalakot. He can be reached at ershad.mahmud@gmail.com

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