Aneeqa Ali is an avid traveller and cyclist who left her corporate career of 10 years in 2017 to start The Mad Hatters. The Mad Hatters is an experiential travel company taking local and international adventure seekers to less-explored areas of Pakistan for a rich cultural experience. The News on Sunday interviewed Aneeqa Ali to hear her thoughts on the potential of the tourism industry in Pakistan and on her experience with the beautiful north of the country.
The News on Sunday (TNS): Your passion for travelling led you to form The Mad Hatters. Tell us about your travels through Pakistan. What are some of the most beautiful and exciting places you’ve been to?
Aneeqa Ali (AA): Whenever I got tired from the routine and madness of city life, I decided to take a break and went on a trip to find refuge in the mountains. Exploring nature and interacting with people from different cultures always helped me find a new perspective on life. My passion for travelling took me to the remotest corners of the country, and made me fall in love with the beauty, heritage and diversity of Pakistan.
In March 2017, I finally decided to take the plunge of leaving my corporate job and gave in to my love for traveling by deciding to turn this passion into a career. This led to the formation of The Mad Hatters (www.themadhatters.pk); an experiential travel company for adventure seekers to journey into some of the less explored areas of Pakistan for a rich cultural experience. Through this platform, we aim to educate people about the beautiful landscapes, culture, lifestyle, crafts and cuisines of the country - the side of Pakistan that often does not get the deserved limelight.
I have travelled all over Pakistan and in my opinion every part of this country has something unique to offer. I loved travelling to interior Sindh and experience the rich culture and warmth of the people from this region. I keep visiting Skardu and Deosai again and again because of the breathtaking and haunting natural beauty. I love how the people of Hunza are so progressive and actively involved in community development initiatives. I absolutely loved the hospitality of Shimshalis and how everyone focused on living a simple life, whether rich or poor, without dividing the society into social classes. I loved the spiritual vibe of the valley of Chapursan in Hunza. So, there is not any single favourite place. I love them all.
TNS: What about the facilities available in the north for travellers and adventurists? Are these facilities sufficient? How can they be further improved?
AA: Pakistan’s tourism sector is not an entirely formal industry; it is composed largely of unregulated/unregistered organisations providing substandard services. The tremendous increase in demand for tourism-related activities in recent years has resulted in explosive growth of new service providers in different tourism fields. A lack of regulatory frameworks allows for unethical and irresponsible practices, posing an imminent threat to the long-term sustainability of Pakistan’s tourism industry.
Mass tourism is a serious threat to our beautiful valleys, not only because we currently lack the necessary infrastructure to cater to these rising demands, but also because we do not have proper waste management and disposal systems that make it sustainable to manage the trash produced by these growing visitors. Trees are being cut down to build more hotels and roads, which is not only harming the natural beauty of these areas, but also escalating the already alarming levels of climate change and global warming.
Before we start inviting more tourists, we should take out some time to study and analyse the models of other countries that were successfully able to grow their tourism industries without damaging natural resources. We should learn from these models and implement best practices to grow tourism in a sustainable and responsible way.
TNS: The culture, crafts, and beautiful landscapes of the north are usually not in the limelight in Pakistan. This is also true when it comes to the international perception of the country. How, in your opinion, does this affect the tourism industry in the country? Also, how can this be changed in the future?
AA: Pakistan is often misrepresented in the media by being in the news for all the wrong reasons. There is another side to the country that does not get the recognition it deserves. All the people who visit Pakistan go back with a completely different image of the country than that they had come here with. Almost all of them end up extending their stay and become repeat visitors. Not only this, but they also become its ambassadors in their respective countries and send more people back here to make them experience what they did. Through the combined efforts of the government and private organisations we should keep this momentum growing by showcasing the beauty of Pakistan to more people from around the world.
TNS: Pakistan is home to some of the most adventurous and beautiful mountains in the world. Does this give the country an edge when it comes to the tourism industry? How can we further benefit from this?
AA: Pakistan has so much to offer in terms of heritage, history, culture as well as variety of landscapes ranging from ocean to deserts to mountains. Through the development of proper infrastructure and basic training and development of tourism professionals associated with this industry, we can put Pakistan on the map as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
“I have traveled all over Pakistan and in my opinion every part of this country has something unique to offer.”
Tourism industry is still in its early stage of development in Pakistan, and the infrastructure of our roads, hotels and other facilities needs a lot of improvement to be able to sustain mass tourism that these valleys attract.
Other than my undying love for travelling, a factor that motivated me to start a travel-related venture was the unavailability of quality service providers in this line of business. Although, the travel industry of Pakistan is saturated in terms of the total number of service providers that are operating in the market, only a handful are offering decent services. Through the implementation of a proper regulatory framework, we can ensure the provision of better services and infrastructure development to benefit from the huge potential for tourism.
TNS: What sort of people sign up for trips to the north with the Mad Hatters? Are these frequent travellers or are they experiencing the north for the first time?
AA: Since March 2017, we have taken more than 150 trips to 50+ destinations of the country and served more than 1,500 customers. We provide services to individual as well as corporate clients who can sign up for our scheduled or customised tours. In addition to serving domestic travellers, we have also partnered with a few international organisations and provide services to foreign tourists visiting Pakistan from all parts of the world. We get a mix of people on our tours. Some of them are frequent travellers, while others are exploring the country for the very first time.
A women-led travel company is a rare phenomenon in Pakistan. It offers a comfortable environment for females and families on the trips. On almost all the trips that we have organised so far, the ratio of females has been higher than males. We have also taken some female-only trips, which is a market abnormality that says a great deal.
The response from the market has been very encouraging so far. The people who travelled with us have not only become repeat customers but have also recommended the venture to their friends and family. We take a lot of pride in the fact that more than 50 percent participation on almost all our trips is by females. Most of our clientele comes through referrals and word of mouth.
TNS: Given your experience, how much training or exposure does a person need to become a frequent mountaineer in the country? How dangerous is the Pakistani north for a novice traveller?
AA: While travelling to the northern parts of Pakistan, you’d be experiencing a remote region that’s hard to get to but full of incredible natural wonders. This region has wilderness, high altitudes, blue skies during the day, night sky full of stars and milky-ways, and the quiet you’d feel is remarkable. However, such adventure travelling in Pakistan at times can have its fair share of sacrificing your comfort back home in terms of lack of proper infrastructure and facilities.
Mountaineering is a completely different ball game and one needs to go through rigorous training and preparation before embarking on this journey.
TNS: Any tips for people looking to explore the beautiful north?
AA: Our goal is not only to explore the beauty of Pakistan, but also to make it better through our conservation and community development activities.
In July 2020, I co-founded Root Network (www.rootnetwork.org) with a group of female travellers and development professionals drawn together by a shared belief in the importance of responsible travel. Our aim is to create an equitable and inclusive tourism industry in Pakistan by increasing access to meaningful economic opportunities for indigenous communities, promoting local culture and heritage and advocating for sustainable development and responsible travel practices.
As the famous saying goes, leave nothing but footprints, thus we must act as responsible l even if others do not. There are some things that you, as a tourist, can and should keep in mind when going around Pakistan. Be respectful of local culture and norms. Minimise your waste and always dispose of it properly. Ask permission before taking pictures of locals. Do not pollute the areas that you visit. Give respect to local communities. Read up about the places you plan to visit in advance. Finally, prepare for your adventure through proper research.
The writer is a staff member