While the government of Azad Jammu and Kashmir celebrated 2019 as the ‘year of tourism’, Indian shelling turned Neelum Valley into a no-go area for many tourists
On a hot August afternoon, while watching television at her home in Islamabad, Mrs Bukhari saw the news of skirmishes at the Line of Control (LoC) in Neelum Valley. She was distraught. A day before, her husband and his friends had left for a trip to the same area and she hadn’t heard from him since. She hadn’t worried about the lack of contact before because there are only a few places in the valley where cell phones work. But she started to fear the worst after she saw the news tickers.
“I tried to call them in a panic,” she recalls. “All their phones were powered off, which only added to my worries.’’
Mrs Bukhari sprung into action, frantically calling tour operators and journalists, and trying to reach out to locals via social media. “One journalist told me that the area my husband and his friends were visiting was out of the firing range and comparatively safe,” she tells Eos. But this information did little to reassure her at the time. A few hours later, the same journalist called her with some good news. He had somehow managed to contact her husband. He also sent the worried wife a photo of her husband’s jeep as proof of their safety.
This is not the story of the Bukhari family alone. Many others travellers’ families found themselves in similar situations as sporadic exchange of heavy shelling between Indian and Pakistani forces at the Line of Control (LoC) in Azad Jammu Kashmir (AJK) continued during the summers.
It is no wonder then that the picturesque valley has been seeing fewer and fewer visitors and the tourism industry in Neelum Valley has seen a major decline. Curiously, the government of AJK celebrated 2019 as “the year of tourism”, but locals working in the tourism industry look back at the year differently.
Khawaja Riaz works as a tour operator in Neelum Valley. In previous years, he would host an average of 12 to 15 major group tours during the peak tourist season between May and September. But this year he brought only three group tours of 40 people each to the valley.
According to Riaz, his company has to often change the itineraries of their group tours, sending travellers to alternate destinations such as Naran, Swat and Gilgit-Baltistan because of frequent Indian shelling in AJK. “Only a few people dare to visit an area under fire,” he says. Most do not want to put their lives in danger. “Neither can we put their lives at risk just for the sake of our business,” Riaz says.
A majority of the scenic areas that tourists want to visit are situated close to the LoC. The 240-kilometre-long bow-shaped Neelum Valley is situated in the northeast of Muzaffarabad. The valley is known for its scenic beauty, pleasant weather, waterfalls, high mountains and lush green valleys. The Neelum River slices through the valley. The destinations in the region most popular with tourists include the historic Sharda Town, Ratti Gali Lake, Chitta Khatta Lake, Patlain Lake, Keran, Upper Neelum, Kutton, Jagran, Baboon Valley, Arang Kel and Toabutt.
The valley has inspired many nature-lovers to call it heaven on earth. But with its entire length on the LoC, for 14 years, the area has remained a battlefield between Indian and Pakistani forces, following the beginning of an armed freedom movement in India-held Kashmir in 1989. The only major road linking Neelum Valley to the rest of AJK remained closed for over a decade. Indian snipers targeted the vehicles and pedestrians from across the Neelum River, a stone’s throw away.
The 14-year-long warlike situation has left almost all major markets and villages destroyed. Educational institutions, hospitals and other government and private infrastructure were also damaged. Children were born and reached teenage years, never knowing what peace looks like.
And then, finally, India and Pakistan signed a ceasefire agreement in 2003 and it seemed like things would change.
Locals thought their troubles were behind them. The Neelum Valley Road opened and brought with it some temporary relief to the people. Locals started rebuilding their lives and homes, and re-establishing their businesses. Educational and socio-economic activities also resumed in the region. Above all, tourists from across the country started to flock the far-flung area that had remained virtually inaccessible for over a decade.
The rare boom in the tourism industry brought the locals multiple opportunities to earn, subsequently becoming a major source of income for many families in the region. Besides larger government and private sector investors, locals also set up small- and medium-scale guest houses where they hosted tourists and earned a happy livelihood for themselves.
In 2014, only 114 guest houses were registered in Neelum Valley. In 2016, the tally had risen to 314. By the end of 2018, a list compiled by the tourism department showed the number of guest houses in the area had reached 520.
According to the tourism department, approximately 600,000 tourists visited Neelum Valley in 2014.
But it all met an abrupt end when the Indian Army resorted to unprovoked shelling on the civilian population and it became a matter of routine after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant commander Burhan Wani in July 2016.
According to data provided by district police in Neelum Valley, the number of tourists dropped to 365,500 in 2015 and declined further by 70 percent in next two years owing to the uncertain situation. When the political situation showed signs of improvement in 2018, the number spiked once again to 215,760.
But this temporary relief ended soon. Following the Balakot attack in February 2019, frequent exchange of fire at the LoC became the norm again. The number of tourists instantly showed a decline. In 2019, only 170,856 tourists visited the area till October 10.
Neelum Valley is a seasonal tourist destination. May-September is the peak season, while very few tourists visit during the winters due to the harsh weather and snowfall. Those affiliated with the tourism industry have only five months to earn enough money to sustain themselves and their families for the entire year. “But this season, hotels and guest houses stood empty as people shied away from entering the area for their security and well-being,” tour operator Riaz tells Eos.
According to Khawaja Raeesuddin, an officer at the tourism department, an estimated 20,000 people, most of them locals, directly or indirectly depend on tourism for their livelihood. Investors have hired hundreds of locals as cleaners, cooks, waiters, drivers, porters and tour guides. Shopkeepers, suppliers and taxi drivers have benefited. A considerable number of villagers sell their fruits such as apples, grapes, cherries, apricots and plums to tourists. “But none of them consider tourism as a sustainable source of income due to the uncertainty,” Raeesuddin says.
According to State Disaster Management Authority figures, 12 out of 59 civilians killed and 73 out of 263 injured at the LoC during 2019 belonged to Neelum Valley; no tourists were harmed. Additionally, the shelling also damaged — partially or completely — a total of 309 houses, 79 shops, 18 vehicles, two schools a hospital and a mosque.
“This year many of the guest house owners were unable to even pay the rent [for the houses]. How will they will manage to pay the salaries to their staff?” asks Raeesuddin. “As a result, many of the workers either remained unpaid or moved to work in other cities.”
Why then did his department deem 2019 “the year of tourism?” Venturing an explanation, Raeesuddin claims that the government planned many activities, including adventure sports competitions, family galas, cultural and food festivals. But nothing went according to plan and these events had to be called off because of the security situation.
The first-ever international paragliding tournament in Muzaffarabad had to be cancelled last year after test flights, Raeesuddin says. Arrangements for the tournament activities were disrupted by the situation at the LoC as well as in India-held Kashmir.
The government of AJK has been investing a major part of its development budget for the construction of roads and building other infrastructure, mainly in those areas with major tourist attractions. In order to develop tourism effectively, a 190-kilometre-long ‘tourism corridor’ is underway, which will connect four districts — Muzaffarabad, Jehlum Valley, Bagh and Rawlakot. The Government of Pakistan has provided a seed grant of 8 billion rupees while the prime minister of AJK, Raja Farooq Haider, has been seeking private sector investment, particularly from overseas Kashmiris, in the major road network improvement project, to strengthen public-private partnership in the emerging business opportunities in the region.
According to Mushtaq Minhas, minister for tourism and archaeology, the government has adopted an unprecedented ordinance to promote tourism through public-private partnerships. The AJK Tourism Promotion Ordinance 2019 is the first of its kind which, as claimed by Minhas, “would enable the tourism department to lease out land or buildings to private investors in the territory, to establish lodging facilities for tourists in different areas of AJK.”
Some non-governmental organisations have also joined hands with the government to promote tourism, by skill building and providing financial assistance to locals, enabling them to maximise their gains from the emerging business.
The Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF), the Himalayan Wildlife Foundation (HWF) and the Akhuwat Foundation launched a collaborative project to train 100 local families
in tourism and hospitality management, and to provide them interest-free loans to renovate the extra space of their homes to rent out as guest rooms to travellers.
But these efforts could not achieve the desired result as the situation at the LoC remained uncertain throughout the season.
AJK remained a no-go area for decades for foreigner tourists. On January 26, when the PTI-led federal government updated its visa policy and started granting visas on arrival to tourists from 50 countries, and conditionally abrogated the requirement of a no-objection certificate (NoC) to visit AJK, it was expected that, gradually, the region would receive visitors from abroad. But it remains an unfulfilled dream as the number of foreigners visiting AJK could not enter triple digits.
AJK has not been able to enjoy the fruits of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s new tourism policy because most of the tourist attractions remain inaccessible for foreigners. A tourism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says that an “unannounced ban” remains imposed, as defence authorities do not allow foreign tourists to enter AJK from entry points and turn many of them back to Islamabad.
A trained and well-equipped ‘tourism police’ was also launched this year in AJK to facilitate tourists during their visits. According to the AJK police department, initially, 120 tourism police personnel have been deployed at Kohala, Bararkot and Azad Pattan, the three points linking AJK with Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Eventually, the tourism police’s presence will be extended to all districts of AJK, according to an official. Besides extended patrolling, a helpline has also been established to enable tourists to directly access the tourism police in case of any emergency.
“Tourism is among the top priorities...and we are investing a huge amount to make these areas accessible to attract more tourists,” Syed Asif Hussain Shah, additional chief secretary of AJK tells Eos. “But tourism is directly linked with peace. Tourists cannot travel in bombproof vehicles or stay in bunkers,” he points out.
Jalaluddin Mughal is an independent journalist and travels between Neelum Valley and Islamabad. He tweets @jalalmughal
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 5th, 2020