TOURISM: THE VANISHING WILDERNESS

Updated June 16, 2019

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Domestic tourists en route to Naran on the eve of Eid holidays, 2018 | Photos by the writer
Domestic tourists en route to Naran on the eve of Eid holidays, 2018 | Photos by the writer

In the mid-’80s when I visited the Kaghan Valley, it was via a hitchhike in a truck owned by the forest department. Back then the much-talked about hazards and travails of the treacherously narrow road would act as a barrier against undertaking the journey. Overlooking bottomless gorges running thick with ferocious waters, the road indeed was not without its pitfalls but nothing could come in the way of youthful resolve.

The broken-down truck made many stop-overs during its more than six-hour-long journey to Naran from Balakot. But each of these interruptions was an unmitigated blessing, as it afforded us a splendid view of the mountains, letting us inhale the strong scent emitted by the dense conifer forests. It was wilderness personified in the absolute calm of the mountains. Significantly, there was hardly any traffic on the road and our truck appeared to be the lone lion roaring on the nearly 128-kilometre (80-mile) long road.  

One recalls the earlier visit, wistfully, in the wake of what has lately become of the once serene valleys in our Northern Areas. 

Urbanisation, development and hordes of domestic tourists are fast changing the landscape of our Northern Areas, to their ultimate detriment

Last year, hundreds and thousands of motor vehicles headed to Naran during the week-long Eid holidays, only to be left stranded on the road between Balakot and Naran. Pictures showed wan and weary tourists, mostly from the southern districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), and no fewer from the various parts of Punjab, languidly resting on the slopes in the vain hope of, somehow, making it to their final destination at Naran. A sizeable number of the vehicles were the so-called pick-ups, prominently carrying a water cooler, a gas stove, a rug and a string bed for want of seats. 

This year, too, according to reports, around 2,000,000 people visited the tourist spots in KP.

Unchecked construction of hotels on the bank of Swat River
Unchecked construction of hotels on the bank of Swat River

It may hurt the sensitivities of a genuine tourist to reflect in any greater detail on the hygienic conditions that erupt in the face of such a mass convergence of people on the small mountaintops and valleys. But such information must not be kept from the eyes and ears of authorities in Islamabad and Peshawar who, for all the wrong reasons, appear to be too obsessed with filling up our empty coffers from the money to be earned from tourism.       

We have to appreciate that when we talk of boosting tourism, our most prized asset is our wilderness. It is, or perhaps was, our wilderness that would attract the discerning tourists from far and wide in considerable numbers. For quite a long time, our wilderness needed no adjectives to announce its profound truth. Sadly, we have ceded on this count, as a substantial portion of our wilderness now stands exposed to the forays of unprecedented human traffic in the peak summer season. 

Pakistan is blessed with wilderness of two kinds: the arid forlorn landscape of Balochistan, and the green forests, mountains and fast flowing rivers and streams of the north. The latter is the most threatened as the hostile climatic conditions in the deserts act as natural bulwark against the rampaging march of the human species.

Zahoor Durrani, founder of Sehrai Tours, has been in the tourism business in KP for more than 40 years. He is heartbroken at the way things are being handled in the tourism sector. “After ruining everything in Kaghan, Naran, Kalam and Nathiagali, the mafia in the garb of tourism promoters have now turned their eyes to Batta Kundi, some 20 km from Naran,” Durrani laments. The tour operator believes that the unchecked construction of multi-storey hotels instead of cottages has totally disfigured the landscape in the once lush-green idyllic Batta Kundi area.

Soft-spoken Haji Asghar has been looking after tourists in Nathiagali for almost four decades. He has seen how the mountaintop lost its glory in the name of development. “There was no need for the setting up of a separate entity in the name of Galiyat Development Authority with its more than 200 staff,” he says sadly. “Previously the job was being looked after in a much better way by less than 20 people in the erstwhile Communication and Works Department.”

In June 2016, Imran Khan flew to Kumrat in Upper Dir district. The visit received wide publicity with everyone pontificating how the mountainous area, resplendent with thick deodar forests, was a heaven for tourism. Barely a month later, on the eve of Eidul Fitr, thousands of domestic tourists flocked to Kumrat. It is common knowledge that, until quite recently, the people of Kumrat would not allow visitors to their area. Previously, no outsider could dare tread there without an acquaintance among the locals, who jealously guarded their privacy. At the end of the Eid holidays in 2016, entrails of at least one thousand slaughtered sheep were found littered on the bank of the pristine Panjkora River in the Kumrat valley. Lately, domestic tourists from KP have been seen transporting their own sheep along with them and the trend is becoming popular by the day, with little or no attention to cleanliness.

Chitral Valley | Photo by Zahiruddin
Chitral Valley | Photo by Zahiruddin

Hearing such accounts was indeed painful as I had visited Kumrat the same year in the company of some locals, namely Zahid, Ismail and Junaid, who informed me about the mess left by the thousands of domestic tourists visiting the Kumrat Valley during the week-long Eid holidays. Such accounts sound even more frightening in the backdrop of reports that the deputy commissioner of Upper Dir had succeeded in convincing the reluctant people of Kumrat that the conversion of their area into a national park would create a bonanza for all and sundry. 

There should be little doubt as regards the fate of Kumrat in the faraway Hindu Kush mountains, once the idea of a dreaded national park is implemented. It is in the backdrop of such poorly conceived ideas that one gets jitters whenever a picture of a remote lake, hidden in the mountains, is splashed in the mainstream newspapers with the caption demanding an access road to the same to boost tourism. We must not forget that our unbridled onslaught on the mountains has already turned the fabled Saiful Muluk Lake in Naran into a pool of literally stagnant water. 

Cultures under threat: locals herding their flocks of sheep in Lowari Top | The Kalasha of the Hindu Kush by Maureen Lines
Cultures under threat: locals herding their flocks of sheep in Lowari Top | The Kalasha of the Hindu Kush by Maureen Lines

One could sympathise with the people of Chitral in demanding the early construction of the Lowari tunnel as their impoverished township, that nestles in the Hindu Kush, remains cut off from the country for nearly five months during harsh winters. On the flip side of the project is the opening of the stupendously calm valleys to the boisterous clamour of noisy crowds. Ironically, the opening of the tunnel would mean bartering the privacy of a diverse and, in several cases, primitive culture and, above all its quietude shielded by a massive wall of formidable mountains for the charm of elusive economic opportunities.

Indeed a tunnel may solve the long-standing problems of the people of Chitral. But for a savvy and adventure-loving tourist landing in Chitral without enjoying the thrill and solitude of the Lowari top, the effort may not be worth the time and money spent.   

Many people may not agree with this account. They may even term it as cynical by pointing out that wilderness alone is not the mainstay of our tourism. True, we have our Gandhara and Indus Valley civilisations to crow about, in addition to our simple and distinct way of life to be shared with the potential tourists. But then we have to keep in mind that modern-day tourists soon get tired of visits to museums, mountains and bazaars. Most, if not all, tourists want to indulge in the pleasures of life in the evenings at the end of day-long trips to various spots on the recommendation of their guides. 

Forest Inspection House in Kumrat
Forest Inspection House in Kumrat

The overemphasis, to the extent of sounding hackneyed, on tourism as a panacea for our economic ills appears to be without solid grounds and reasons. 

In quite a large number of Muslim countries, alcohol is freely available to tourists. In Pakistan, drinking alcohol is prohibited by law. While in the rest of the country, non-Muslim foreigners can consume spirits under licence, the same limited freedom is disallowed in KP. It is an altogether different fact, however, that boozers in KP find little difficulty in procuring whatever hard drink they want to soothe their nerves with. In the face of such striking pretensions and crippling restrictions, it is indeed too far-fetched to expect that we could ever tempt tourists to visit us.

The foregoing also renders meaningless any comparisons with our neighbouring countries in the field of tourism. In 2017-2018, according to the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation, only 1.7 million tourists visited Pakistan in 2017, while — according to the World Tourism and Travel Council — tourism contributed 2.7 per cent to Pakistan’s $313 billion GDP. This comes out to be less than 8.5 billion dollars which, in all probability, is made up of visa fees, airline tickets and hotel charges from the hotels operating in the formal sector. While this may be so, given our peculiar nature of culture and habits, our domestic tourists —especially those from KP — prefer to look after themselves rather than letting their adventure lead to the creation of favourable employment opportunities for others. 

India, during the same period, earned more than 260 billion US dollars from tourism, leading to the creation of thousands of jobs. While this comparison may be misleading on some counts, we have to agree that India offers more freedom and security to the tourists than Pakistan does.

Also, we need to know that the international perspective on tourism is fast changing. According to the cover story in Time magazine’s August 18 issue, las year, faced with an annual intake of about 700 million tourists, many European countries are considering measures to stem the tide. These measures include higher rates of taxes for tourists, imposing fines and limiting the number of daily visitors to certain places. The mass movement of tourists in Europe is being considered a threat not only to the maintenance and preservation of famous landmarks but it is also feared that this trend is negatively impacting the lifestyles of the local communities.

It may not be an exaggeration to say that Pakistan’s most prized landmark is its wilderness, some of which may still be out of harm’s way. Here, we have a choice: we can preserve our wilderness from our domestic tourists to present it to the outside world through which we can earn some little foreign exchange (as revenue from tourism per se is revenue from export). But banking too much on bettering our lot from tourism appears to be a misplaced hope.

The writer is a freelancer and author of Less Than Civil: The State of Civil Service in KP. nasseryousaf@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 16th, 2019