ISLAMABAD: Although climbing season is just around the corner, borders are still closed to foreign mountaineers and trekkers as the coronavirus continues to spread in Pakistan.
Alpine Club of Pakistan Secretary Karrar Haidri told Dawn that around 20 climbing expeditions and 30 trekking groups have applied for permits to travel up north this summer, which is significantly lower than previous years, “especially when Pakistan had just come out of the war on terror and adventure tourism had started to pick up.”
“But now, the coronavirus pandemic has hit the adventure tourism sector hard, putting the livelihoods of porters, guides and tour operators and their families at risk,” he said.
Pakistan has reduced climbing fees by 40pc since 2002, to overcome the safety issues that following Sept 11, 2001, in Pakistan.
Adventure tourism saw a sharp decline in 2003, after 10 foreign climbers and a Pakistani porter were killed at the Nanga Parbat Base Camp.
But discounted prices and improved safety in the following years have made Pakistan an excellent alternative to neighbouring Nepal. “But as fear of the pandemic spread, we have seen several cancellations this year,” Mr Haidri said.
He said that in Gilgit-Baltistan, most of the expedition porters come from villages.
“No expeditions are coming this year, and it is also the end of winter so they have already consumed their reserves of food and no income is expected this year. They are in dire need of government support for survival,” he said.
The club has called for joint action to help the coronavirus-hit tourism sector, particularly in GB.
The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), which represents the international tourism industry, estimates that travel and tourism are responsible for 319 million jobs around the world, Mr Haidri said.
Analysis from the WTTC shows that a million jobs are being lost per day due to the pandemic, with up to 75m jobs at immediate risk. This may cause a loss of$2.1trto the global economy in 2020.
The Asia Pacific region faces the greatest threat, with 48.7m jobs at risk, Mr Haidri quoted the council as saying.
He said: “The global spread of the coronavirus has devastated the tourism industry around the globe, especially a country like Pakistan, which was optimistic to have an overwhelming tourist season due to improved image of the country as a tourism destination in international media and relaxations of negative travel advisories from the number of countries on travel to Pakistan.”
He said that the economic fallout of the pandemic will increase the risk of instability in the tourism sector, especially at grassroots level in mountain areas, where many people employed in tourism and hospitality sectors will have no work.
GB, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Azad Kashmir are the prime areas for summer tourism in Pakistan, he said, where more than 75,000 direct jobs will be at risk because of the crisis.
This will ultimately deprive tourism sector workers of around Rs3bn per month in salaried income alone.
He said that the fear is that Pakistan, which was hoping to earn $1.5bn from foreign tourism this year, will not even make half if the impact of the pandemic continues for a longer period of time.
Mr Haidri urged the establishment national tourism recovery task forces at the federal and provincial levels to devise relief and recovery strategies for the sector.
He said the government must provide immediate relief to industry workers - such as travel agency, tour operation, and hotel staff as well as self-employed people such as tour guides, drivers and porters - who do not have a means of income in the absence of tourist activity.
Tourism and hospitality businesses facing cash flow problems should also be aided through the provision of incentives such as tax rebates, interest-free loans and government grants, and a recovery plan should be developed by the public and private sectors to stimulate the tourism industry and ensure it is able to sustain the shock and bounce back as quickly as possible.
Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2020