Sustainable tourism improves the socio-economic conditions of local populations
Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) is home to diverse cultures, religions, ethnicities and landscapes. Carved in the mountain ranges are mesmerising glacial streams and lakes, rocky mountains and snow-clad peaks. Due to the natural beauty of the region tourism is flourishing in GB. However, tourism activities are concentrated mostly around sight-seeing. There are also growing concerns regarding negative effects of unregulated tourism in GB.
A serious dialogue is needed to assess the impact of tourism on the natural ecosystem of GB. Babusar Top, Hunza and Skardu are facing adverse effects of tourism in the form of traffic jams and solid waste, leading to air, noise and soil pollution. Unregulated land development is adding to the problem of deforestation, soil erosion and loss of biodiversity.
Concrete blocks, inexpensive for their quick and easy construction, are in popular use, diluting the traditional architecture of the region. Damage to culture and heritage has also occurred in some places.
Babusar Top (4,713m) has recently become a popular destination as gateway to GB. The journey up to the Babusar Top is enthralling: it offers varying altitudes, views of valleys, lakes, livestock grazing, traditional villages and glaciers surrounding the roads. Various pit stops make the trip convenient. However, the same trip becomes inconvenient as soon as summer arrives. Informal development of kiosks, littering and on-road car parking are a regular summer sighting. Tourists are attracted towards the white glaciers, but these becomes muddy at all points of interest. Perhaps this is an appropriate moment to consider whether the economic benefits of such tourism outweigh the damage to the environment and culture. Does such tourism really benefit the region and its people?
The GB government must have a tourism management strategy before further promotion. Lessons learnt from the active tourist spots can identify the practices to avoid. Tourism diversification is one approach towards sustainable tourism; however, the key remains in the capacity of destinations and community-centric approaches.
Should there be a cap on the number of tourists determined by its tourism-carrying capacity? Should all destinations be open to the public free of charge? If we want to save the ecology, culture, heritage and social fabric of the region, we must answer these questions as soon as possible.
The rich cultural heritage in the form of its music, dance, art and crafts, sports, architecture often does not get a lot of traction in the narrative for tourism. In addition to cultural tourism, there are many unexplored valleys that offer tremendous mountaineering, trekking, camping, rock climbing, paragliding and ice-skating opportunities.
Adventure sports are an underdeveloped aspect of the region. Trekking to the summer villages and highland pastures is a beautiful experience. These treks can also be taken by pony or yak in some villages. The valleys are rich in cherries, apricots and apples. Highland pastures also contain medicinal herbs. Farm walks and fruit picking can become an educational experience. The development of agri-tourism can take place in unexplored valleys with subsistence farming.
Adventure tourism and agri-tourism both require conscious efforts. Agri-tourism requires that the local community to be willing and prepared, with some standards established and maintained for the quality of living. The access to potential valleys and villages for agri-tourism is also difficult due to unmetalled roads. It is an attractive experience for families, but uncomfortable rides might make some tourists reluctant.
Adventure tourism requires skilled and trained tour guides. A tourist group of a certain age group and enthusiasm will probably be attracted to it, not families. Prior to the implementation of such an initiative, it is essential to mobilise the local community.
Capacity building in the community is required for solid waste management and recycling. The local community should utilise the tourism season as an opportunity to sell their local cuisine, delicacies and crafts in pop-up shops.
Tourism diversification in unexplored and untapped regions should adopt a sustainable and people-centred approach in which the local community reaps the benefits. Developing a hotel and a metalled road is often what brings in tourists but it does not necessitate the involvement of the local community. Such development has led to unsustainable and environmentally damaging models, such as commercialisation in Attabad Lake and Kachura Lake.
In the quest between tourism development and upgrading the socio-economic profile of the people, we might go wrong again. The critical question is do the local people have enough resources to develop their regions? If not, how will they benefit from investment by outsiders? Do the local people really want hotels? What is a sustainable model of development around lakes?
It is possible to turn lakes, farmed valleys and meadows into sustainable tourism destinations with minimal physical intervention. Locals believe that metalled roads will enable tourism but it is just as important to upskill the community to manage tourism in their valleys. As most valleys cater to tourists in the summer season, temporary accommodation in the form of camps can suffice.
It is possible to construct a limited number of huts that will represent traditional architecture, not only utilising local skills, but also preserving the architectural style. Capacity of the huts and camps should be determined, with camping only allowed in dedicated zones with restrooms.
Capacity building among the communities is also required for solid waste management and recycling. The local communities should utilise the tourism season as an opportunity to sell their local cuisine, delicacies and crafts in pop-up shops or camps around lakes. Local people can also become tour guides for unexplored treks that they are well-versed in. In this way, tourism can be people-centred with minimum outside intrusion and physical interventions.
Tourism in this model is centered around quality and experiences, rather than expanding the number of tourists. It preserves the natural ecosystem and biodiversity by limiting concrete development. At a local level, community should be engaged to mobilise and train the locals. The GB government must translate the sustainable development model through its tourism policies and land-use regulations.
The writer is an architect and urban researcher with MSc specialisation inaffordable housing and urban development studies