To recover from the financial impact of the pandemic, the mountain destinations of GB and KP are in need of local tourism to return
The road is empty, languid and without the usual hustle and bustle of an otherwise busy place. Imdad Ali sits perched on top of a rock and from his vantage point looks over the torpor that has befallen his small town of Sost in Gilgit Baltistan. As the morning wears out, the shops on either side of the mighty Karakoram highway remain shut, the border town is in suspended animation. In the distance, the Sost dry port, gives a desolate feel with no activity as Imdad Ali and the bone-dry mountains of the Karakoram look down on the ghost town this once-bustling centre has become.
A few years back Imdad Ali’s father, a small business owner, took a loan from a friend to build a small lodge on the piece of land he owned in Sost. Every summer, the four rooms of their rest house would get a 100 percent occupancy, raking in enough money for them to pay back the loan and see them through the harsh winter months. But things are markedly different this year. It’s early July, almost one month into the summer tourist season, and their rooms are empty. Dozens of small restaurants and gift shops are similarly deserted. With no tourists around, Imdad’s mother and sisters have returned to farming without having to worry about cooking for guests – the chimneys aren’t wafting smoke.
A few kilometres down the Karakoram Highway, Sakina helps her brother, Hussain Nagri, set up a roadside stall of freshly picked cherries. Though cherries from this part of the region are sought after and are transported across the country, small landowners like them rely on tourists visiting the region to buy their produce. The siblings help their parents, who own a small orchard in Nagar, sell the produce to make ends. With no tourists in sight, Sakina and Hussain wait all day for local buyers to buy their cherries at throwaway prices as they can’t afford to return home without selling it all. These days Hussain brings his torch with him so that they can stay at the stall for longer, even after the sun is down, unlike previous years where they sold off before noon.
Every year between May and September, the mountain communities of Pakistan prepare for a large influx of tourists who seek refuge in the cool weather of the region from the hot and humid climate prevalent in the rest of the country. In recent years, with a slight improvement in the security situation of the country these areas saw a gradual increase in tourism. With prospects looking good, locals started investing in the tourism industry, some even took loans to build lodges and rest houses. According to locals, income generated over the summer season — a chunk of which comes from tourism — represents approximately 60 per cent of their annual revenue.
Apart from the international mountaineer community, international tourists contribute very little to the tourism industry of the region. According to data from 2019, a total of 17,823 tourists visited Pakistan in 2019 as compared to 1.9 million visiting Sri Lanka, 10 million visiting India, and 39 million visiting Thailand.
The months from June to August are also the busiest for mountaineering-related activities in this part of the country. The season, which attracts mountain climbers from all parts of the world, opens up opportunities for mountaineering-related businesses which includes livelihood for local transporters, loaders, porters, mountaineering guides and fixers. But apart from the international mountaineer community, international tourists contribute very little to the tourism industry of the region. According to data from 2019, a total of 17,823 tourists visited Pakistan in 2019 as compared to 1.9 million visiting Sri Lanka, 10 million in India, and 39 million in Thailand.
Ever since early March, when governments began advising citizens against non-essential travel on account of Covid-19, the mountain communities who were preparing for the arrival of the spring tourists anxiously have followed the unfolding of events. All hopes were dashed when the Gilgit-Baltistan government announced a complete lockdown, sealing its borders to tourists.
Experts suggest that the forced pause does provide an opportunity to rethink tourism for the better. With the recent uptick in tourism, the model adopted by the industry was unsustainable. Initially, it was anticipated that a boom in tourist footfall to more remote corners of the region would provide a winning chance for communities and places that had previously suffered from under tourism. But a massive footfall resulted in the degradation of the fragile mountain ecosystem.
Environmentalists suggest that this might be an opportunity for a much-needed reality check, a chance to realign our local tourism on more eco-friendly practices. They urge both the federal government and provincial governments to devise a road map on how to re-imagine these tourist destinations for future. They agree that tourism is the mainstay for most of these villages, providing most of their incomes and employment, but they also believe that by attracting tourists en masse has resulted in a bigger carbon footprint. They suggest that high mountain destinations in Pakistan should take a leaf from the successful model of tourism in Bhutan where the industry embraces a “high value, low impact” approach “founded on the principle of sustainability, meaning that tourism must be environmentally and ecologically friendly, socially and culturally acceptable and economically viable”.
To recover from the financial impact of the pandemic, the mountain destinations of Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are in need of the right kind of tourism to return which needs to be managed carefully. The planning should include managing the numbers of tourists visiting the places, working with local communities to protect their environment, educating tourists on areas of sensitivity and financially supporting local communities to cover their losses.
The writer is a freelance contributor based in Lahore