— S.M.Bukhari Photographgy

Forget white bloggers from Poland. How much do Pakistanis know about domestic tourism?

We don’t need to teach foreigners about Pakistan half as urgently as we need to educate Pakistanis themselves.
Published May 30, 2019

There has been much talk about the future of Pakistani tourism. The Pakistan Tourism Summit was held in April, criticised by many as being too exclusive and biased towards Western media and influencers.

In response, there was a brilliant video by Alex of Lost with Purpose, in which she highlighted the three main problems when we portray a solely positive media coverage of travelling in the country. She talked about restrictions on free movement, lack of representation for Pakistani travellers and the potential for serious cultural clashes between unaware tourists and the people here.

The gora complex that Alex mentioned in her video is undoubtedly a real issue. There is no question that the perspectives of travellers who arrive on sponsored visits and rave about the jagged coastlines of Pakistan’s 'most dangerous' province are naïve and one-dimensional.

Yet, ultimately, these are all buzzwords — goray bloggers vs. local ones, the word 'local' conjuring the idea of a faceless young Pakistani who can somehow represent every nook of the country, from Ranikot to Rawalakot.

This debate is superfluous when you consider the foremost fact: Pakistan is woefully unprepared for any substantial increase in tourism, be it international or domestic.

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During extensive travel in Gilgit-Baltistan and northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa this year, I met dozens of people in the tourism industry who all painted a familiar narrative. Tourism was thriving up north before 9/11 and has been a ghost since. This year, however, almost everyone feels optimistic. They are seeing rising numbers of tourists, particularly domestic ones.

In Pakistan’s affluent heartlands, travel now competes with designer lawn and big weddings as a potent status symbol. The rise of social media, particularly Instagram, has made the well-angled shot of a cup of chai against snowy mountains as aspirational as candid wedding photographs lit up by fairy lights. Travel is so 2019.

There also seems to be general consensus in the north that the new government bodes better for the industry than its predecessor did. Imran Khan quickly did away with the frustrating requirement that every foreign traveller visiting GB or Azad Jammu & Kashmir carry a No Objection Certificate.

In Chitral, the government recently stopped requiring mandatory security escorts — good-natured policemen who would accompany the foreigner wherever she went, their guns jutting out against Chitral’s lush green hills as unseemly reminders of the fact that the country was, at the end of the day, a security state.

Restrictions on trekking around the Chitral mountains have been relaxed. For this year’s summer festival, the Kalash were expecting unprecedented numbers of visitors, both domestic and foreign. From Skardu to Bumburet, everyone told me that the tourists are coming.

But where will they stay? During peak season in Bumburet and Karimabad, Hunza’s tourist capital, all hotels get fully booked, with some tourists unable to find a space to set up tents for the night. According to Aneeqa Ali, who runs a Lahore-based tour company, The Mad Hatters, there is a dearth of hotel infrastructure in the north.

Luxury hotels such as the Serena are present in hub cities as well as in Shigar and Khaplu. The company has, in fact, reserved land for construction in smaller locations as well — in the future, there will likely be Serenas in the sleepy towns of Gulmit, Sost and Passu.

Yet, very few domestic tourists have the purchasing power for Serena nights. What they need are mid-range hotels that provide the necessities that all travellers except hardened backpackers expect — reliable electricity, hot water and clean sheets.

Without any centralised planning, enterprising residents of these areas have cobbled together ways to keep up with the increasing demand for housing. Everywhere along the famed Karakoram Highway, construction workers are busy trying to complete hotel buildings “before season starts”, using whatever material is available to finish the work. Some people open up their houses to guests, employing the concept of the homestay that has been popular in Southeast Asia for several years.

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Aneeqa, whose company places special emphasis on female travel, tells me that the problem with this decentralised growth is the absence of holistic planning at the local or regional levels. With hastily-constructed rest houses cropping up at every turn, there is no thematic development of areas to ensure that the new construction complements the natural landscape.

There also seems to be no requirement on rest houses to maintain a balance between residents and tourists in specific towns. “I can see Hunza becoming the next Nathiagali,” she tells me.

Ijlal Khattak of Baydaar Travels speaks of the same problem, giving the example of Naran as a paradise destroyed by overcrowding and unbridled construction. Ijlal’s company, highly popular on Instagram, specialises in tours of the Pakistani north, with an emphasis on eco-tourism. Both he and Aneeqa mention the lack of proper sewage and trash disposal facilities in major tourist hubs.

This is emblematic of the Saniplast approach the country treats its problems with — slaps one on and keeps going.

While searching for hotels in Skardu, I found only a few options on Google search and major travel sites such as Booking.com and Tripadvisor. Upon arriving in the city, however, I saw dozens of hotel options, none of which I had come across in my search.

It appears that even as the tourists of Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar use their smartphones to look up hotels, very few of the hospitality providers in the north are using technology to promote their businesses.

And how would they? Hunza hardly has electricity — a stunning fact considering how educated and progressive the region is. Skardu and Gilgit have fewer power issues, but none of Pakistan’s major networks provide internet service there. The military-owned SCOM has a monopoly on data services in the entire GB area.

While military-backed monopolies can come as a surprise only to the most naïve of us, this is frustrating on two levels. Firstly, for Pakistanis travelling in their own country, it is an infuriating hassle to have to switch services and procure a new SIM card upon entering GB. Secondly, and most importantly, even after getting a SCOM connection, one is not guaranteed connectivity. Service is paltry once you leave bigger towns and can sometimes disappear for days.

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Yes, there are ways to travel without the internet. Yes, there is something romantic about walking into hotels and asking for availability, bringing to mind the neon "Vacant" signs of old-school American motels. Not being able to tell Facebook you are checking in at the Khunjerab Pass can be a blessing.

Yet, around the world, shifting travel patterns mean that more and more people opt to travel independently instead of with tour companies. If we want to enable tourists to explore the beauty of Pakistan beyond the biggest cities, is imperative that we have the technology to enable this. Independent travellers, those who want to use public transport and eat at restaurants beyond their hotel’s dining hall, need good internet.

This is symptomatic of one of the largest problems of the industry — an information gap between providers and clients that can sometimes seem insurmountable. We faced this gap in Bahawalpur, a city with an illustrious history of Sufi scholarship, Buddhist and Hindu influence and Nawab patronage. Due to its proximity to India and the presence of a huge cantonment area, the city is entirely out-of-bonds for foreigners.

However, this critical piece of information is not mentioned on the website of the Ministry of Interior, nor on any online hotel listings. We found out only at 10pm one night when my husband, a foreign national, tried to check in at a hotel after a full day of sightseeing. Within a few minutes, there were uniformed policemen standing in the lobby, telling us cheerfully but firmly that we had to spend the night at a police guesthouse and leave the next morning.

From Gilgit, I decided to take the Northern Areas Transport Corporation (Natco) bus across the regional border into Chitral. I asked five different people —hotel owners, wagon drivers, tour operators and Natco officials — whether the famed Shandur Pass was open. I received five different answers:

Yes, it was open. No, it was going to open after May 1st. It was open but one of the buses for the route had broken down, disrupting schedule.

I finally boarded a bus at the end of April, full of disbelief that there could be so much confusion about one of the major routes of the region, run by the government itself.

As the bus made its way into KPK, we began our descent from snowy mountaintops. It was after maghrib and I sat with a clenched jaw as the bus tumbled down a road so narrow the edge was invisible. Every now and then, a young Chitrali construction worker who was working for the Skardu-Gilgit road expansion project would jump off the bus and use an old shovel to dig into the mountain. Then, he would hop back in and the bus would continue down the newly-expanded road, the only major artery connecting northern KPK.

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If the government is serious about promoting tourism in these areas, it needs to improve the abysmal road infrastructure throughout the region. The people there will be the first beneficiaries — currently, it takes one six hours from Phander to travel 100 kilometres to visit family in KPK. The road between Skardu and Gilgit is a nightmare, although work is underway to make it wider. Roads in Chitral that service the three Kalash valleys are in terrible condition, making inter-valley movement lengthy and cumbersome.

The result is that most tourists never leave the most popular valley of Bumburet, which is fast becoming a menagerie of badly constructed hotels and souvenir shops.

Big city media continues to wring its hands over the appropriations of foreign bloggers, questioning their right to tell stories, insisting that the experiences of travel of Pakistanis are much more complex and “real”.

Yet, my travel through the north of Pakistan taught me that this attention, despite its good intentions, is ill-targeted. If there is any group of travellers that the northern tourism industry has a love-hate relationship with, it’s not random white travellers from Poland. It’s the non-local locals.

Tourists from Punjab, Karachi and the KPK heartland (Peshawar, Mardan and Mingora) form the largest proportion of visitors and revenues to these areas. The industry recognises that these are the people who kept coming even when the foreigners disappeared after 9/11.

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These are the people who will always come — to spend a weekend away when Peshawar begins to swelter, on a group retreat from Karachi’s madness, for a class trip from Lums or King Edwards.

They will bring their families because they don’t think, as the average Western traveller does, that Pakistan is a backpacking destination, fit only for the young and untethered. A hotel owner in Phander laughed as he told me that his most prized guests were always Punjabis. “They eat well”, he understated.

The future of Pakistani tourism is Pakistanis. Certainly, it is nice to cultivate a friendlier image abroad and international tourism can bring much good to the country. Yet, hotel owners and restaurateurs up north know that with the country’s logistical difficulties and constantly precarious security situation, the one stable source of income they can rely on is not dollars or euros, but rupees from down south.

While recognising this group of tourists as their primary clientele, many in the hospitality industry also complain about their attitudes to travel.

There have been several incidents of male travellers harassing women in Hunza and Chitral. All northern festivals end with grounds covered in litter and food waste, mostly left by travel groups from the south.

All towns up north have been overtaken by the karahi effect — the omnipresence of Punjabi food on every menu. I remember being seated next to a well-heeled group of Karachiites at a restaurant in Karimabad. They were all staying at the Serena and had come to the restaurant to get a 'local' flavour.

After hearing the headwaiter meticulously explain each Hunza dish on the menu and exclaiming, “that sounds wonderful, na” in posh accents, they ordered eight karahis for the table. The waiter begged them to at least try chapshuro, a much-loved specialty. They agreed to get one for the table to share.

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We don’t need to teach foreigners about Pakistan half as urgently as we need to educate Pakistanis themselves. People travelling to the north should treat the trip as something more than a respite from the heat and a backdrop for Instagram shots. There are people living there, with complex histories, unique languages and a food culture that grew out of completely different necessities than the southern plains and plateaus.

Yes, the karahi doesn’t taste the way it does in Anarkali, but if you wanted karahi you should have never left Anarkali.

Despite the teetering economy, we will likely continue to see a boom in intra-country tourism over the next few years. Saba Akbar, an architect and prolific solo traveller behind The Local Trails, predicts the same, crediting the rise of social media to an upcoming exponential increase in tourism. “When that happens”, she says, “we need to be ready for it”.

It is important that both the government and tourists recognise that this boom in numbers itself is not a mark of success. Even in the best of circumstances, tourism inflicts damage on the environment and the hosting cultures. Unless we can channel this growth to directly benefit the people of these areas and protect their homes from irreversible harm, it will never be worth it.

Header photo: S.M.Bukhari

Do you have a critical take on tourism promotion? Share your views with us at prism@dawn.com