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Fighting terror with tourism

Updated June 23, 2013
The once popular Steam Safari.
The once popular Steam Safari.

Militancy had virtually wiped out the tourism industry in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but it is slowly recovering, says Sadia Qasim Shah.

How does the world see this country, especially the tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which have been on the front line of the war against terrorism?

Simply Google travel advisories for Pakistan; the travel advisory issued by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) UK warns against travelling to Fata, the districts of Charsadda, Kohat, Tank, Bannu, Lakki Marwat, Dera Ismail Khan, Swat, Buner and Lower Dir in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, districts south of Peshawar, including travel from Peshawar to Chitral road via the Lowari Pass, on the Karakoram Highway between Islamabad and Gilgit. The FCO also advises against all but essential travel to the Kalash Valley, the Bumburet Valley and Arandu to the south and west of Chitral in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

In the end the FCO mentions, “Around 270,000 British nationals visit Pakistan every year. Most visits are trouble-free.” Isn’t it ironic that though most visits have been trouble-free, the country has warned its citizens from visiting tourist attractions like Swat, Kalash (Chitral), Peshawar and Charsadda, home to a rich historic heritage?

However, one positive outcome of this dismal situation was that, in a bid to promote the ‘soft’ image of the country, the previous government tried to revive domestic tourism by holding cultural events, The Sarhad Tourism Corporation (STC), which was once on the verge of closure, was revived as the Tourism Corporation of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It held some peace festivals and upgraded adventure and sports competitions, explored new tourist attractions like Khanpur for water sports and involved the youth in holding events to project a peaceful and tourist-friendly image of the province to attract domestic tourists. Music festivals were held despite terrorism threats which proved psychologically therapeutic for the local terrorism-stricken people.

Efforts were also made by the previous government to woo foreign tourists including monks from Buddhist countries to visit the holy sites in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and these proved quite fruitful.

It goes to the provincial government’s credit that tourism activities like festivals and adventure sports competitions continue to be held. The Shandur Polo Festival is planned in the first week of July, the Chilam Josh festival displaying the beauty and indigenous culture of the Kalash people was held successfully in May. Domestic tourists continue to visit cooler tourist attractions in Swat and the northern areas in summer.

Swat, which was devastated first by militancy and then by floods in the last couple of years, is also recovering from these calamities and the Swat Summer Festival will be held for the third consecutive year. Though bad roads and the presence of security check-posts may still be a discouraging factor, a number of air, water and adventure sports, cultural shows and scenic beauty may attract domestic tourists this year too.

Though militancy is the major culprit, to some extent previous governments can also be blamed for not focusing on development of the tourism sector and the required infrastructure. What little there was, was destroyed by natural calamities like earthquakes and floods. The roads which lead to many scenic tourist attractions like Kalam and Behrain were destroyed by floods and discourage tourists from visiting the area. Lack of a tourist-friendly environment like hotels, tourist guides, roads and transportation further hinders the growth of this industry.

The previous provincial government had claimed $40 million from the federal government back in 2008 as compensation for financial losses suffered by the province’s tourism industry due to terrorism. The officials were of the view that there was a precedent for the same in the context of Afghan refugees when in the 1990s, the federal government provided a handsome amount to compensate the then NWFP government for the pressure and damage caused to its infrastructure by the presence of over five million refugees in the province. However, this time, according to officials, the federal government has not provided any compensation to the province.