In the past few years the local public’s interest in exploring the lesser thronged highlands and mountainous terrains has seen a surge
When Marcel Proust wrote, “The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of eternal youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes,” he seemingly drew upon the popular Shakespearean analogy of beauty and the beholder in terms of scenic splendour. The argument is furthered when Proust, in paraphrase, suggests that one could go to Mars and Venus and yet find them designed to look like the earth all due to a lack of vision.
In the diction of tourism, strange is the land one has yet not set foot upon. While that could be the next few miles or a spot the loner’s stroll might take them to and in some instances these strange lands are traced to the wild, unapproachable yonder, now made accessible through travel companies that offer customised tourism tailored to suit individual requirements.
With the largely looming advice to stay at home for safety of self and other vulnerable family members at home, the industries that depend their running on outdoorsy activities, especially tourism have faced severe setbacks globally and in Pakistan, too, all the more owing to essential lockdown restraints, closure of hospitality and recreational centres and lack of availability of paraphernalia to execute SOPs.
Aneeqa Ali, founder of The Mad Hatters, an experiential travel company has set out to make some things right in this journey of bringing safety within the parameters of traveling along with three other young women — Sara Kazi, Alex Reynolds and Turfah Tabish. The call of wanderlust has come to Aneeqa after spending a decade in the profession of finance and management, which she describes as corporate slavery on her website, until she quit the subservience and “turned her passion into a career” some five years ago. (ref: https://themadhatters.pk/finding-your-calling)
Running a travel company could be a passion translated to practice, yet marred like other industries by the unfortunate blow of Covid-19. Quoting statistics from NTCB, the company cites a loss of Rs 100 million to the hotel industry in February 2020 alone, a ninety percent reduction of foreign tourists to Pakistan in 2020, revenue loss amounting to $10 million during the Spring season alone (PATO) are just a few examples of the setbacks Covid-19 has caused to the tourism industry.
The pilot project that The Mad Hatters, a privately run travel company have executed in twelve different areas of Gilgit-Baltistan: Minapin, Aliabad, Karimabad, Altit, Gulmit, Passu, Khyber, Shimshal, Sost, Chapursan, Hopar and Gilgit, covered training of the hotel and hospitality industry’s staff for marketing strategies, disinfecting methods, maintenance of proper hygienic standards acceptable by global yardstick in a bid to encourage the flow of revenue upon which several domestic budgets rely. The training project itself is running via a crowdfunding campaign a major chunk of which was contributed by foreigners, as TNS learnt through The Mad Hatters’ Aneeqa.
The task before the industry is too daunting for one individual or one privately owned company to take up but one pilot project could be the icebreaker, perhaps for further improvement.
“When we first went to these localities, we found enormous potential but there were certain glitches that needed to be addressed and still do, such as the lack of proper infrastructure which includes roads, hotels, public bathrooms, etc.” The hotels that are already functional, have a certain disparity in their standards of hygiene: as the stars go downwards, the cleanliness also drops on the graph. “There was an intense lack of environmental sensitivity because tourists would litter and the hazardous refuse would stay there dirtying the scenery as well as affecting the ecosystems.”
Despite these challenges, the business of tourism was going on until everything came to a sudden halt with Covid-19, and the pilot project which helped train 200 tour guides and hotel staff members was executed in September. The project aimed to take within its folds the local community so they can help protect themselves as well as the environment.
The task before the industry is too daunting for one individual or one privately owned company to take up but one pilot project could be the icebreaker, perhaps for further improvement in different touristy places as well.
In the past few years the local public’s interest in exploring the lesser thronged highlands and mountainous terrains has seen a surge along with the foreign tourists and that has added fresh vibrancy to privately run travel companies, such as The Mad Hatters, who offer a boutique style variation of tour packages designed around architectural excursions, history and heritage tours, photo walks, cultural walks and more, however, the one most flaunted on the website is the Pakistan for Women by Women tour, which is encouraging for women interested in segregated traveling. “In a stifled social structure, traveling is a masculinised activity, but one needs to keep pushing the boundaries,” says Masooma, a traveller who frequents the mountains on her motorbike.
The ennui of lockdown seems to be breaking away bit by bit, and as each crumb falls off, the hitherto ensnared atoms of protoplasm cobwebbed with uncertainty and fear of the unseen virus are gradually stretching out.
The writer has authored two books of fiction, including Unfettered Wings: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Women (2018)