The Fate of Northern Pakistan's Tourism Industry
Originally published in Khaleej Times WKND Magazine 17/06/11
“The Tenth of September 2001was a busy day,” says Manzur Karim; “there were many foreign tour groups, many Americans.”
I am sitting sipping sweet tea amidst the dusty trinkets and sun-bleached postcards in Manzur’s Hunza Shangrila Handicrafts Shop on an alleyway off the bustling bazaar of Gilgit, the ramshackle mountain town at the heart of Pakistan’s far north.
I have been in Pakistan for less than 24 hours, after arriving on a bone-shaking bus ride across the Khunjerab Pass from China. Any apprehension I felt on arrival in one of the world’s most troubled nations has dissipated with my first morning stroll through Gilgit: so far I have encountered only cheerful invitations to drink tea; the cup that Manzur offered is my fourth since breakfast.
I haven’t, however, seen any other foreign tourists – hardly surprising, given Pakistan’s atrocious media profile. Bombs in big cities are so common that they hardly merit a headline, and this, of course, was the country where Osama bin Laden was recently run to ground.
But it wasn’t always this way. A decade ago Gilgit-Baltistan, the mountainous region of Pakistan’s far north, was high on the travellers’ wish-list. A minor tourism boom had followed the opening of the Karakoram Highway, a high-altitude road linking Islamabad with China, to foreigners in 1986. By the turn of the century an estimated 30,000 foreign tourists were visiting Gilgit-Baltistan each year.
But then came “the war on terror” and everything changed.
As I sip my tea Manzur reminisces about the pre-9/11 days when foreigners were a common sight in the bazaar. Today he scrapes a meager living from domestic tourists, but has never thought of giving up.
“We’ve been doing this for 35 years,” he says; “so how could we change?”
Manzur has another motivation for continuing to fly the flag for Gilgit-Baltistan’s moribund tourist industry: sky-scraping ridges, rough roads, and unusual demographics – this is the only part of Pakistan dominated by Shia and Ismaeli Muslims – have kept the region almost entirely isolated from the troubles affecting the rest of the country. Arriving overland from China, meanwhile, allows visitors to bypass down-country trouble spots.
“Why don’t tourists come here anymore?” Mazur wonders, gazing out at the bustling bazaar. I am here to try to answer that question.
An hour later I am sipping yet another cup of tea in a plush office in the deserted riverside hotel of PTDC, Pakistan’s state-owned tourism development corporation. Birds are singing in the trees outside.
PTDC’s Gilgit manager, Shahid Nawaz Khan, shakes he head sadly.
“When I first joined this industry everyone was interested in tourism. After 9/11 this has become a big problem. People who joined the tourist industry in the 1990s are too old now to join the army or government service, and it’s difficult to do anything else in the private sector. Basically we’re all just sitting around waiting for the good times to come back,” he says.
Shahid admits that mistakes were made during the 1990s: “No one was interested in sustainability because people thought the industry would keep growing year by year,” he says. But he also wrestles with a deep sense of frustration.
“The international media shows only the negative things, but what has that got to do with Gilgit-Baltistan?”
As I wander back through the bazaar I can’t help but feel that he is right. This certainly doesn’t seem like a dangerous place. Brightly decorated Suzuki minibuses roar along bustling streets; a heady aroma of grilling kebabs fills my nostrils, and when I raise eyes above the jumbled rooftops I can see the sharp sunlight shining on the high peaks beyond the town. It is time to head for the hills.
The next morning I clamber aboard an overloaded minibus bound for Yasin, a remote mountain valley some sixty miles west of Gilgit. Soon we are rolling along a narrow road above a cobalt-blue river. Women in pillbox hats and purple headscarves watch shyly from the wheat-fields as we pass.
Yasin is a wild and beautiful place that even in the 1990s saw few foreign visitors. For two days I make my way north along the valley. In every village I am welcomed like a long-lost friend. The former Taliban fiefdom of Swat lies just 100 miles to the south, but with huge mountains blocking the way, I might as well be on another planet.
After my unworldly sojourn in Yasin, Gilgit seems like a buzzing metropolis, all the more so as a fast-paced polo tournament is underway. This not the genteel sport favored by English aristocrats: Gilgit-style polo looks like a sort of no-holds-barred rugby on horseback.
From the midst of a roaring crowd I watch the two five-man teams – drawn from the ranks of the police and the army – thunder back and forth to a soundtrack provided by a trio of traditional drummers and pipers. In the end the army wins – as they usually do in Pakistan...
To my surprise there are a handful of other foreigners at the polo match, and most of them are – like me – staying at the Madina Guesthouse. A little oasis of calm in a walled garden at the heart of the town, the Madina was once a busy institution on the travellers’ circuit. These days it barely survives on the custom from a trickle of hardy over-landers in the summer months.
“I don’t really know how we survive,” says Habib ur Rehman, the assistant manager; “every year we think it will be the last, but somehow we get just enough to keep going for one more season.”
One thing that keeps Habib hopeful is the impressive dedication of his cousin, Yasir Hussain, Deputy Director of Tourism and the Environment for Gilgit-Baltistan.
Yasir drops in for breakfast on his way to the office the next morning, and over yet more tea he tells me about his hopes for the future. With the rest of Pakistan facing such an uncertain future, Yasir says, Gilgit-Baltistan’s land border with China is a lifesaver, allowing travellers to visit the region without worrying about security. But it is crucial, he tells me, for sustainability and community involvement to play a part in any resurgence of tourism in these wild mountains.
“We have to facilitate the recovery of tourism if we want peace to continue here. If communities are busy then there is no time for conflict,” says Yasir, smiling and sipping his tea.
From Gilgit I head back north towards the Chinese border, through the fabled Hunza Valley, a mountain fastness that stands out even amidst the generally jaw-dropping scenery of Gilgit-Baltistan. Village houses huddle amongst the poplars trees, their flat roofs strewn with amber apricots, drying in the sharp sunlight. Stupendous snow peaks tower to inconceivable heights on either side.
Karimabad, the eyrie-like traditional capital of Hunza, was once the centerpiece of Gilgit-Baltistan’s tourism industry. The view from my guesthouse garden alone – down over concertinaed terraces to the river, with the full 7788-metre might of Rakaposhi rising in the distance – would attract hordes of camera-toting trippers were it in any other country.
Indeed, a decade ago, as a steady stream of tourists rolled into Karimabad, many commentators complained that it was being “spoilt”. Today, however, the village is a place of bankrupt gift shops and empty hotels.
“Nothing today, nothing yesterday, nothing tomorrow,” says Moimin, a blue-eyed carpet salesman with a store on Karimabad’s narrow main street when I ask how business has been. Then he breaks into a grin and shrugs: “But Hunza is still peaceful.”
I linger over the final days of my journey, heading north from Karimabad towards the border, stopping in the little villages of Gulmit and Passu, places of sunshine and dusty lanes where rickety suspension bridges criss-cross the surging river and the snouts of huge glaciers push right down to the highway.
Since that first cup of tea with Manzur in Gilgit many other locals, remembering better times, have asked me plaintively, “Why don’t tourists come here anymore?”
Glib replies to that question spill all too easily off the tongue, but up here in the mountains, with the sunlight shining like molten copper through the poplar leaves, phrases like “Taliban” and “suicide bomb” cease to have meaning. I cannot answer the question myself. Why don’t tourists come here anymore?
© Tim Hannigan 2011