June 2004 News

Severe Setback To Tourism

16 June 2004
The Dawn
Omar R. Quraishi

Karachi: The disturbances and curfew imposition in Gilgit and its surrounding areas couldn't have come at a worse time especially as far as tourism is concerned. After 9-11 and its bloody aftermath in Afghanistan and then in Pakistan, the number of foreign tourists to the Northern Areas has virtually come down to less than a trickle. However, things were looking up and a few days prior to the beginning of the unrest, newspapers carried several reports saying that mountaineering and trekking expeditions had arrived in Islamabad and were on their way to Gilgit and-or Skardu. May-June also marks the beginning of the trekking season, so it would be safe to say that the rest of this season is probably not going to see too many foreigners wandering or trekking in our Northern Areas. The reasons for the return of the foreign trekkers probably have more to do with time rather than any deliberate policy action by the government to lure them. It has been close to three years since the events of September 11, and it would only have been a matter of time that at least some of those who had postponed their plans then would now begin to return to places like Gilgit. As for the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (whose one hotel in Hunza, according to some newspaper reports, was also attacked and damaged by the rioters recently), it has called 2004 the year of the mountains and plans are said to be afoot to host a festival of sorts in the Northern Areas, marking the golden jubilee of the first ascent of Mount Godwin Austen, better known as K-2. One wonders what will now happen to that festival or to the annual Shandur Polo festival held every year in July on what is possibly the world's highest polo ground (at around 4,000 metres above the sea level). At the same time, the government has claimed that tourist arrivals in Pakistan in recent years have registered a healthy growth, increasing the number to above half a million in 2003. However, it should also be mentioned, that the majority of these are not the kind of tourists who go to a country only for sightseeing. The vast majority are Pakistanis who live overseas and who come to Pakistan periodically to visit their families and friends. Since the government itself does not give separate figures for both categories, it is hard to say just how many genuine tourists actually have been coming to Pakistan every year. However, anecdotal evidence would suggest that since 9-11 the numbers have sharply gone down. In fact, even the number of domestic tourists to, say, places like Swat is reported to be lower, especially since the MMA government has been in power in the NWFP. Whether or not the policies of that government are such that they create a hostile atmosphere even for domestic tourists is not under discussion here but rather that the perception that was created was not all that conducive for domestic tourists making a trip to Chitral or Swat. Besides, the country's Northern Areas, in large part because of their proximity to Kashmir, have had their fair share of jihadi activities in recent years. Take the case of the now-banned Jaish-i-Mohammad (renamed the Tehrikul Furqan) which is said to run its training camp in Balakot in Mansehra district. Balakot is mentioned in most guidebooks as the starting point for the lush green and very scenic Kaghan valley. The same goes for much of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, which has some of the best mountain and alpine scenery in the country but which many foreigners do not or cannot visit because of various restrictions imposed by the government. So, if the government wants to get the foreign tourists to come to Pakistan - and this is something that can possibly happen in the medium-term - it will have to do something about the very negative image that our country has in the West. Part of it is justified because we do have all kinds of extremist elements in various parts of the country - Karachi, the largest city, has just seen its bloodiest month in years. Religious forces are in power in two of the provinces and are the main opposition at the centre. Anti- US sentiment also does not help because white-skinned tourists walking about in, say, conservative Swat can easily become targets of bigots. It has to be said that it's not as if the conservatism found in some parts of the Northern Areas has suddenly emerged out of nowhere - it has been around for quite some time, but the success of the MMA in the last election and the increasing tendency to try to thrust one narrow interpretation of religion down everybody's throat is leading to disastrous consequences for the country's image both at home, among the more progressive-minded, and abroad. The rather unfortunate aspect of all of this is that the government seems to have no clue really as to how to deal with the situation and what to do about the country's negative image abroad. The question is not one of brushing up the image as it exists now but of improving the security situation in the country and of reining in obscurantist forces holding the rest of the nation virtually to ransom. As for the PTDC, given its total lack of initiative other than to hold needless seminars every now and then and to issue press statements claiming that such and such things will be done to promote tourism, it needs to be restructured and reoriented. The projection of Pakistan as a tourist destination should be decentralized and partly given over to the private sector with the ministry of tourism in a regulatory role. Private companies have been doing a lot to promote the country although their focus regrettably remains too much on the overseas (and probably more affluent) market. The following is what an effort from a couple of determined people can do. Wajahat Malik is an accomplished travel journalist and has done some very good shows for two TV channels. In fact, earlier this year he won an award for his work and in his acceptance speech he said that his journeys into Northern Pakistan happened despite Pakistani officialdom which at every step tried to create hurdles for him and his crew. Recently, the National Geographic channel broadcast an adventure documentary interestingly titled 'Surfing the Northern Frontier' featuring Wajahat and his cousin Nisar. They travelled to several hitherto virgin lakes, nestled high in the mountains of the north where they windsurfed in the crystal blue frigid waters of these lakes. Among the areas the two went to were the Deosai Plateau and the Ishkoman Valley northwest of Gilgit, where Nisar windsurfed on a lake 3,800 metres above sea level. The footage was absolutely fantastic and mind- boggling and would make an avid traveller want to visit these lakes. It's a pity, though, that the cousins, who also shot the documentary, were funded by a foreign company for this venture. The tourism ministry needs to benefit from people like these, and perhaps like the travel writer Salman Rashid, who have travelled all over Pakistan, who know a lot and who have some experience in making films that can be aired for foreign as well as domestic audiences. PTV needs to air this documentary too, especially since it often is in the habit of showing National Geographic films, albeit two decades old. 'Surfing the Northern Frontier' will have done probably more for Pakistan's image, at least as a potential tourist destination, in Europe and America than the output of all tourism ministry statements, claims, conferences, moots and festivals put together in the past decade. It would be a good thing if the government stepped in and helped finance such ventures instead of having to rely on foreign firms.


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