The road to Gilgit, the capital of Gilgit-Baltistan region. — Photo by Alamy

Fears escalate as government encourages tourism during Covid-19 outbreak

The government is hatching plans to save summer tourism even as the country witnesses a rise in Covid-19 infections.
Updated 05 Jun, 2020 04:51pm

"I won’t allow this on my watch," said an incensed chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), Hafeez ur Rehman, talking to The Third Pole over the phone from the capital city of Gilgit. He was referring to the recent announcement by Prime Minister Imran Khan in which Khan talked about opening the tourism industry and directed the provincial governments of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and GB to prepare standard operating procedures in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

The prime minister pointed out that the warm months were important for those whose livelihoods are linked to tourism and feared a continued closure could lead to more joblessness.

As coronavirus infections in the country spiked and fatalities increased following a relaxation of the lockdown on May 9, many were expecting an imposition of a stricter lockdown. In fact, two weeks before the government had eased the lockdown, the Punjab health department had warned of an unprecedented spike in the rate of infections in Lahore alone. "No workplace and residential area of any town is disease-free," it had warned.

In light of these apprehensions, this decision to further open tourism has raised eyebrows. Some have termed it "crazy" and "insane".

Putting communities at risk

"He [the prime minister] will be responsible for mass homicide," said Lahore-based Maria Umar, a social entrepreneur working for financial empowerment of women and who visits the mountainous regions of Pakistan religiously every year.

"Hunza is probably the one place that’s safe from Covid-19 and he [prime minister] is putting the lives of those people at risk by opening tourism. I want to go to the mountains and spend a week camping in Deosai, but what I need to do for myself and others is stay put where I am," she emphasised. "He is giving a false sense of security to others which is going to end ugly," Umar warned.

While some in the government will eagerly point to countries in Europe which are reopening tourism hotspots like Rome’s Colosseum and the leaning tower of Pisa, it is important to note that these countries have largely come down from their "peak phases" whereas Pakistan’s is a few weeks away.

Pakistan is now among the world’s top 10 countries when it comes to new daily deaths and cases.

Government's defence

Defending the prime minister’s announcement, Aftab Rana, chairman of the National Tourism Recovery Action Committee, said the decision was neither sudden nor out of the blue, but a "well thought-out" one.

"We have been meticulously working on developing a strategy to open up tourism now for the last three months," he said. He added that the idea is not to open the floodgates for tourists, but allow "controlled tourism" with strict health measures.

He said that stakeholders such as big and small hoteliers to restaurant owners, porters and transporters have been consulted by the government. Even shop owners, tour operators and guides were part of the decision-making, he said.

This was endorsed by Khushal Khan, Secretary Tourism of KP. "Once we get a nod, we will ensure through the district administration and the police that the SOPs (standard operating procedures) are enforced," he said.

Khan said crowding will be limited both in terms of occupancy in guest rooms and in dining areas of hotels as well as restaurants and no one will be allowed anywhere without masks and gloves. Social distancing and disinfecting guidelines will also be put in place. He said the signage, sign boards and pamphlets for the tourists to follow the rules have already been designed.

But GB’s chief minister Rehman remained unconvinced. "It is one thing to have these on paper; quite another to implement them on the ground," he said. "I oppose this emphatically."

Unfortunately, he said, his term will end on June 24.

Pakistan on the cusp of tourism boom

The fears expressed by Rehman and others in the travel trade are legitimate. Even in big cities in Pakistan, many of the SOPs in place for public gatherings, shops and mosques have been blatantly violated. Mask wearing and face coverings are far from the norm and commercial centres are crammed with people standing close to one another.

Despite these violations of SOPs and the swelling cases and deaths, the government appears desperate to re-open travel to the mountains. Even pre-Covid-19, Prime Minister Khan was eager to boost tourism in the scenic northern areas, with many speculating that the October 2019 visit of Prince William and Kate Middleton would put Pakistan back in the spotlight as an attractive, safe tourist spot.

With Covid-19 and its resultant economic slowdown, it appears that the government’s hopes of generating revenue through Pakistan’s fledgling tourism industry were thwarted — revenue and jobs that it is not prepared to forego out of fear of the virus.

Rana insisted that the number of visitors to these places was significant to allow opening tourism. "Over 1.5 million domestic tourists visit GB, in these months; and 1.2 million visit places like Swat, Peshawar, Chitral, Abbottabad etc., annually. Imagine the impact these regions will feel without this form of income generation."

The chief minister of GB, however, had a different take: "We survived a decade without tourism when terrorists stalked our land; a year without tourism will not be a problem," Rehman said, adding that 90% of the citizens of GB were opposed to outsiders visiting their region at this time of the pandemic.

"Our health system is just not good enough to take the load if things go out of control," he said.

Poor healthcare

The statistics for healthcare infrastructure are indeed grim. According to a 2017 study by Amimah Fatima Asif, a medical officer at the district headquarter hospital in Skardu, emergency departments and mental health are among the most undermined and forsaken areas of healthcare, primarily in the far flung Gilgit Baltistan region.

"Another grave issue is that the doctor to population ratio in GB is alarmingly disproportionate i.e. 1:4100 whereas the national statistic is 1:1206," she wrote in the study, which was published in the Pakistan Journal of Public Health. "This statistical evidence testifies to the stark reality that healthcare in Gilgit-Baltistan is in an appalling state."

She added: "The DHQs, THQs, BHUs (government health centres at various levels), and dispensaries are of negligible benefit to the community since doctors are rarely available, a handful of laboratory investigations are being performed, there is a serious shortage of trained laboratory and operation theatre technicians and trained nursing staff, and no basic medicines are procurable. Accident and emergency departments are in [a] dismal state with limited availability of lifesaving drugs."

Tour operators oppose re-opening

Seema Alkarimi, a young woman from GB who started an AirBnB style startup called 'LetsHome', is among those opposed to the re-opening of tourism. Business was good for the two years since this started. But she has been refusing to book for destination weddings, 'corona vacations' and yoga retreats.

She fears the tourists will not follow the SOPs issued by the government and the local people hired to cater to them will fall sick.

"I’d rather lose customers and business than have my people fall sick," she said. Like the chief minister, she said there were "just not enough health facilities" in GB.

But even if tourism is re-opened, said Afshan Bano, who works in the hospitality industry, "holidaying here will just not be the same as it was pre-pandemic."

"For instance, we will not be able to give our guests the warm traditional welcome offering of the home-made bread and butter and the welcome drink," she said, adding they have to come up with a newer way that requires "minimal human touch".

With a decade of experience working with a five-star chain of hotels in GB as marketing and communications manager, Bano said: "Earlier, tourists would walk about freely around town, pick cherries from trees belonging to locals; many would get invited in for a cup of tea; or shown the inside of a home…all this will not happen. People are just too scared."

The same fear and trepidation is palpable in the hotel business too. "We will be taking a lot of precautions from the time a guest arrives at the airport till he leaves our premises — we already are. But what if a guest gets infected? All the blame will fall on us."

For now, Bano said, her hotel was holding on to the reservations and will book as soon as they get the GB government’s approval.

Header photo by Alamy

This article originally appeared on and has been reproduced with permission.


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Zofeen T. Ebrahim is an independent journalist based in Karachi.

She tweets at @zofeen28.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (19) Closed

Jun 05, 2020 11:42am
The government should take an opportunity to consider the development of a welfare state. No more hand to mouth existence or fund raising requests but a sustainable system. So people can be supported with dignity and respect.
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Nilesh Potdar
Jun 05, 2020 12:14pm
Choosing money over life... Cheap life value
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Jun 05, 2020 12:23pm
Tourism opening is deliberately puuting the locals lives into more and more risk residing the mountainous people. In different places of Gilgit-Baltistan Civil Societiny people are trying their best to control Covid-19 thorugh measures like social distancing etc. Flow of tourism will bring nothing but distruction to this region.No one is dying coz of hunger .We all have our own limited resources and in this pandamic we need to use those resources.PM must know regarding the benefices of this tourism. Not more than 25% of total population are benefiting so please dont put others lives in danger. As whole country faces lack of resources and one can imagine the health facilities available in this region of mountains.
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Cricket Fan
Jun 05, 2020 12:56pm
Tourism with precautions and PPEs is being opened throughout the world.
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Chrís Dăń
Jun 05, 2020 01:54pm
@Cricket Fan, yes.
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M. Saeed
Jun 05, 2020 02:29pm
What is important for the PM, saving tourism or, saving lives endangered by the pandemic?
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Jun 05, 2020 03:21pm
When the doctors and health workers are getting infected and dying promoting tourism is suicidal and pure insanity. Clearly we are in wrong hands.
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Jun 05, 2020 05:13pm
People were already complaining of mental health issues and were requesting to open parks and tourism sector. Now tourism sector is opened and people are still complaining
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Jun 05, 2020 05:22pm
I hope any tourists contemplating coming here will read Dawns extensive coverage on how the PM and government handled the crises when it was peaking world wide: denial, refusal to give PPE to our frontline medical staff, and allowing clerics to have congregational prayers in open mosques and refusing compliancy of SOPs. Stay away until this is under control. We are in the midst of peaking. Don't become a statistic.
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Jun 05, 2020 06:47pm
PM IK has two critical problems at hand, sinking economy and uncontrolled population growth. He is solving both by his 'no lockdown' policy. Allowing tourism will help further.
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Jun 05, 2020 09:12pm
Nodoubt it will increase not decrease
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Jun 05, 2020 09:47pm
It’s ok, people come at their own risk. As far as Pakistanis are concerned their selfless hospitality for tourists is much better than that towards own nationals.
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Jun 06, 2020 04:17am
@Cricket Fan, yes, but pakistan has terribly handled the pandemic, unlike the countries which are opening their economies now after the short pain of effective lockdowns.
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Jun 06, 2020 04:19am
@Alrehan, experts should be listened to. Ik always ignores relevant advice. First he ignored economists' advice and devastated pak economy and now he chooses to ignore stark warnings by medical experts
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Jun 06, 2020 04:35am
@Cricket Fan, dont compare us to the world when our PMIK just 3 months back refused and still refuses to take it seriously or enforce total lockdown incl mosques/congregational prayers using force through police and army, if necessary. He also still refuses to provide our frontline medical staff with PPE. In fact doctors protesting were beaten by the police at his orders. Our government also did not inform most citizens of the danger or even how to counter it. That's why we are now seeing a rise and we are yet to peak. Most countries in the world had responsible leadership who instead of consulting clerics and letting them control things, consulted epidemiologists, scientists, doctors, virologists and followed the policies of total lockdown, enforcing this through law enforcement, business and individuals being fined if they even joked about it or kept open for business. Their citizens were well informed and observed social distancing, precautions sanitation, gloves, masks early on.
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Jun 06, 2020 09:13am
Encouraging tourism during this current pandemic is a death wish.
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parveez shafi
Jun 06, 2020 05:05pm
I am a die hard supporter of P.T.I. But they have lost the plot. I visited northern areas last years, and this year the family had booked to revisit. At a very high cost, we have cancelled because it is not safe to visit. We are staying in the UK. The chances are we will not get refund.
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AbdulHaque Shaikh
Jun 06, 2020 06:16pm
@Nilesh Potdar, Whose life? Tell this to daily wage earner and his family. There are millions and millions of them in Pakistan and India.
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Seshagiri Rao
Jun 06, 2020 06:27pm
@Javed, Dear., you are mistaken and totally afraid of virus. First of all please observe that more than 75% of Covid patients "have recovered". Dont need to worry about Covid. There are traditional medicines and Herd community is an excellent defence.
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