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— NADIR TOOSY

THE CLOSING OF THE NORTH

Will the reopening of tourism in GB provide some relief or has the pandemic made the future of tourism more uncertain?

Updated 12 Jul, 2020 01:13pm

As the country reels under a pandemic, tourism in GB has been hit particularly hard. The prime minister announced the reopening of tourism, hoping it will provide some relief. But was the solution too simplistic in its haste?



It’s rare to see Karimabad so quiet this time of year. In a video posted by popular Instagram account @IncredibleHunza, the cameraperson walks through the uncharacteristically still streets of one of Hunza’s most visited neighbourhoods. To see a popular tourist destination without swathes of people during peak tourism season is the dream. But this is no dream scenario.

Soon one notices the closed shops. The guesthouses without the guests. And clothes hanging idly with no customers at the usually bustling market.

Karimabad looks like a ghost town.

A photo posted by Instagram (@instagram) on

The caption on the Instagram video carries the hashtags #visitPakistan and #travelPakistan. But as Covid-19 disrupts tourism around the world, one wonders when #travelling will even be possible again.

As I replay the 32-second video over and over, I can’t help but remember my walks on these very streets years ago. Sitting in my bedroom in Karachi, working on a piece about Covid-19’s impact on tourism in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), the sound of local Hunzai music plays in my head. I am reminded of how one could hear music from across the valley as if it were being played right in front of one — something to do with the acoustics of the mountains.

I am reminded of tourists losing their breath climbing up the incline on the main streets. And local grandmothers,with babies strapped to their backs with a sling fashioned from a dupatta, doing the same climb almost effortlessly.

Younger people would converge at Cafe de Hunza, a place that guaranteed free ‘working’ internet, real coffee and their signature walnut cake. And then you’d spot the foreigners, and among them ‘old’ mountaineers, who’ve been coming here for years. These foreigners seemed more at home in GB than you and clearly knew their way around this region like the back of their hand.

“After 9/11, we survived for 18 years. Those were difficult times,” says mountaineer Nazir Sabir. At that time, most of the tourists GB catered to were foreign and only a handful were domestic ones. After 9/11 they stopped coming. Until recently.

Finally, you’d see what the locals refer to as sasta tourists. They would come in hordes, piled inside large buses. And like sardines in a can, anywhere between five to 10 of them would cram into one room for the night. These tourists had been offered a trip to the mountains for pennies, the low price made possible by operators cutting corners everywhere. Locals would complain about these tourists to anyone who would listen, because they don’t contribute much to the economy and have a reputation for littering.

One wonders if some locals, especially daily wagers, whose earnings depend on tourism, would gladly welcome even these sasta tourists now.

“There have been dips in tourism in the past,” says Mirza Ali who runs a trekking and mountaineering group called Karakorum Expeditions. “But I’ve never experienced anything like this.” Even when there was flooding in Upper Hunza and Gojal in 2018 due to a glacial burst, and it was difficult to get in and out of the region, things were not so bad because that was at the very start of the tourism season. “They didn’t just stop coming,” Ali tells Eos.

Given these circumstances, one might expect that locals in GB would have welcomed the government’s decision to reopen the tourism industry. But the truth is a little more complicated.


THE COST OF CLOSING TOURISM

A porter sleeping among the rocks during a trekking expedition | Nadir Toosy
A porter sleeping among the rocks during a trekking expedition | Nadir Toosy

In early June, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced the reopening of the tourism industry. He pointed out that this was the peak season for tourism and added that many livelihoods are entirely dependent on travel. A continued lockdown would only contribute to these individuals’ financial woes.

He wasn’t wrong. The tourism industry, much like practically every other industry, has been hit hard by the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. But, ironically, soon after the prime minister presented the reopening of tourism as a solution, the government’s own Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) announced the closure of all its motels in the northern areas. Employees of PTDC were also let go.

“Due to continuous and irreparable financial losses [and] having no other resources [during] the current Covid-19 pandemic, the federal government and PTDC Board of Directors unanimously resolved to close down the operations of the company,” the PTDC’s notification said.

Sabir is also afraid of an outbreak on a bigger scale. “I don’t think [the government] should even think about opening GB this year or even the next year,” he says. “I know dozens of people, both in Hunza and in Islamabad, who are Covid-19 positive, but they are not telling anyone because they are terrified."

In GB, the pandemic and its resulting lockdowns couldn’t have come at a worse time for those dependent on seasonal work to see them through the rest of the year.

“I have been ruined!” says Shakir Sultan Hunzai, who is a small tourism operator from Hunza. When I first met him a few years ago, he had been working as a driver and guide for his cousin’s company based out of Karimabad. Taking advantage of Pakistan’s domestic tourism boom, he decided to try his luck and open up his own independent travel agency, Travel Sultans, which provided a one-stop solution to tourists frequenting the area.

But with more than half the season gone, his agency hasn’t been able to generate any income and the banks are calling.

“There are so many people in my position,” he says over the phone, his voice cracking from stress. “We’ve taken out loans and they’re coming after us.”

Hunzai had met representatives from the bank the very morning he spoke to me. “I’m working on a very small level,” he says. “I had to go for microfinancing and the interest on that is around 20 percent — that’s 40,000 rupees per month on top of other household expenses.” Hunzai says he’s been “sitting around, waiting for a miracle.”

When the lockdown was announced around late March, Hunzai understood that it was the necessary thing to do. At the time, no one from his circle believed it would last for more than a month. Over three months later, they’re losing hope and are running out of time.

“Even if they open the season by the end of July, we’re only left with August and half of September to make enough money to last us a year,” says Hunzai. But even that seems increasingly unlikely.

Mirroring Hunzai’s opinions, many disagreed with Prime Minister Imran Khan’s decision. One of the most prominent of these voices was GB’s then-Chief Minister Hafiz Hafeezur Rehman.

With Pakistan’s coronavirus cases showing no signs of declining, GB’s ex-chief minister Rehman (who held office till 23 June) had resisted reopening tourism. “I won’t allow this on my watch,” he had told online publication The Third Pole. “Our health system is just not good enough to take the load if things go out of control.” Non-residents are still not allowed to enter the region, although some “influential” individuals have reportedly managed to make their way there anyway.

As most tourism-dependent nations are reconsidering their dependence on foreign tourists, Pakistan finds itself in a unique position. Over 71 percent of all tourism here is domestic. While domestic tourism has been rising slowly since 2010, in the past four to five years, there has been an unprecedented boom.

At the time of writing this article, GB has 1,587 confirmed coronavirus cases, just a small percentage of Pakistan’s 237,489 cases (July 8, 2020).

Even those struggling financially recognise the dangers of reopening the region for tourists at this time. For Travel Sultan’s Hunzai, the pandemic has hit close to home. One of his family members recently died from the virus. “Around 16 members of my family, from the same household, were infected and have recovered,” he tells Eos.

Nonetheless, on June 23, the GB government announced intentions of starting ‘controlled tourism’ in the area. Strict Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) will need to be followed, it was said. The next day, on June 24, the GB assembly was dissolved as their tenure had finished.

A caretaker government is currently in place and is apparently still working on introducing SOPs.

But even when the SOPs are introduced, there is no guarantee that tourists will return. And even if they do, not everyone will benefit from the return of local tourists. Most of Ali’s expeditions, for example, are geared towards a foreign clientele. “All of our groups, except for those for the autumn season, have cancelled their tours,” he tells Eos. “They’re not letting Pakistanis enter other countries, since we are very good at spreading the coronavirus,” he says. “So it depends on how many people [even] want to come here.”

For ex-chief minister Rehman, people’s safety is more important than tourism. “We survived a decade without tourism when terrorists stalked our land,” he had told The Third Pole, “a year without tourism will not be a problem.”


SURVIVING WITHOUT TOURISM

A local boy pauses farm work to smile for the camera | Amna Zuberi
A local boy pauses farm work to smile for the camera | Amna Zuberi

“After 9/11, we survived for 18 years. Those were difficult times,” says mountaineer Nazir Sabir. At that time, most of the tourists GB catered to were foreign and only a handful were domestic ones. After 9/11 they stopped coming. Until recently.

Sabir was the first Pakistani to have summited Everest, and is perhaps one of Pakistan’s most well-known mountain men. Originally from the small remote village of Raminji in the Chipursan Valley, Gojal District in GB, he’s also climbed four of Pakistan’s five 8,000 metre mountains — K2, Broad Peak, Gasherbrum 1 and Gasherbrum 2. He was also the first civilian president of the Alpine Club of Pakistan. A passionate environmentalist, he organises treks, tours and expeditions through his mountaineering company.

“Last year was the year when tourism had a major boom,” he tells Eos. “This year, we were expecting 35 percent more business than last year,” he says, adding that no one imagined the drastic spike in domestic tourism GB has seen in the recent past. But then Covid-19 happened.

Sabir says in these times locals will have to think of alternatives. Farming could be one alternative he suggests. “People need to go back to whatever little agricultural land they have.” Sabir says locals are already doing this. “I’ve been speaking to people back home. While it is true that things aren’t the way they used to be — more people are moving to the cities — but there is always a member of the family who will take care of the land. Some have gone back to shepherding. Every family has members that shepherd and till the soil.”

But others like Ali disagree. This may have been sustainable 15-20 years ago, he says, but not anymore. “Back in the day, we used to grow a year’s worth of food beforehand,” he tells Eos. “When I was young, nothing used to come from outside. Now we get everything, including government-subsidised wheat from Punjab; from outside.”

In the absence of tourism many locals have returned to farming | Amna Zuberi
In the absence of tourism many locals have returned to farming | Amna Zuberi

Not only do they not have that kind of agricultural capacity anymore, but most of the younger generation, that would’ve comprised the labour force cultivating the fields, have been focused on other jobs or have migrated to the cities. “Plus, this is a mountainous region, you have very limited terrain for agriculture,” Ali adds.

But like Sabir suggests, Hunzai has found some temporary relief in farming. “That’s what most of us have done,” Hunzai says. “My office has been closed for the past four months and I’m out working the fields back in our village.”

Some outsiders have also mobilised their efforts to try and help daily wagers and tourism workers in GB. The travel portal FindMyAdventure has set up a ‘Guide Fund’ in collaboration with organisation Rizq. They’re raising money for daily wage workers, including porters around Pakistan.

So far, they’ve managed to raise over 4,000,000 rupees. This money has helped over 340 families spread across GB, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, parts of Punjab and the southern part of the country. They’ve ended their campaign, but the portal is still accepting donations.

They are not alone. Ali has also set up a separate GoFundMe account hoping to get donations for the porters, high-altitude mountain guides and cooks who are most vulnerable economically due to a closed tourist season. At the time of writing this piece, Ali had managed to raise $5,924.

But these efforts can only go so far. Locals believe more sustainable solutions need to be introduced. The promise of SOPs and tourists potentially returning is simply not enough.


ARE LOCAL TOURISTS THE FUTURE?

As most tourism-dependent nations are reconsidering their dependence on foreign tourists, Pakistan finds itself in a unique position. Over 71 percent of all tourism here is domestic. While domestic tourism has been rising slowly since 2010, in the past four to five years, there has been an unprecedented boom. This is in part due to the fact that it’s very difficult for most Pakistanis to travel abroad — even for those who can afford it, visa application processes can be very discouraging.

Travel pages on social media have also helped the trend. The Karakoram Club (TKC), has over 332,000 members who share photos and anecdotes from their travels. Platforms such as @TravelBeautifulPakistan (TBP) and @IncredibleHunza have 211,000 and 173,000 followers on Instagram respectively. All they do is post photos of stunning vistas around the country — especially GB and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — whetting the appetite of a whole new generation of connected and moneyed aspiring adventurers.

A group of mountaineers | Nadir Toosy
A group of mountaineers | Nadir Toosy

Stuck at home for months in lockdown, many are now looking at those photos, planning their dream vacations. It’s only a matter of time before they start making their way to the north, especially come holiday season.

In fact, some already have, despite the lockdowns. “We drove all the way from Karachi to Nathiagali during Eidul Fitr break,” says Moin Ijaz, a Karachi-based business man. “Lockdowns were lifted and we decided to take advantage of that,” he says. “How long can you stay cooped up in one place? We were careful — six people in two cars. We rented a house because every other guesthouse was completely booked that weekend. People need to get out.”

With a fancy newly-paved highway cutting the journey from Karachi to Islamabad from 25 hours to 16 hours, and having made that trip already, he’s now confident about going further. His group is aiming for the northern areas next, if restrictions are lifted. And he is not the only one.

Tourism has proven to be very resilient in previous crises and has often shown a very fast recovery. According to data by the United Nations World Travel Organisation (UNWTO), when it came to previous global crises, tourism bounced back by 4 percent in the sixth month after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, by 2 percent in the fifth month after the SARS outbreak in 2003 and by 4 percent in the tenth month after the global economic crisis of 2009. The UNWTO expects global tourism to increase by the end of this year.

Last year, 2 million domestic tourists visited GB, but there’s a chance that, with lockdowns lifting and continuing heavy restrictions on international travel for Pakistanis, this number could increase dramatically.

While some may think of this as good news, local operators such as Sabir and Ali also fear an uncontrolled boom. They believe that it will contribute to the degradation of popular sites in GB.

“There is [another] fear of opening up tourism as well,” says Ali. “There is no [healthcare] infrastructure available that can deal with a major outbreak.”

Sabir is also afraid of an outbreak on a bigger scale. “I don’t think [the government] should even think about opening GB this year or even the next year,” he says. “I know dozens of people, both in Hunza and in Islamabad, who are Covid-19 positive, but they are not telling anyone because they are terrified. What if those who are infected come in from other parts of the country? I’m afraid they might think the clean air of the mountains will be beneficial for them.”

Adding foreign tourism to this mix could make matters even worse. “If a foreign tourist gets infected here it will make international headlines,” he says.

Locals and foreign tourists watch a traditional dance at a festival in Hunza | File
Locals and foreign tourists watch a traditional dance at a festival in Hunza | File

Even those struggling more financially do not think opening up tourism will provide them much relief. “There’s no point,” says Hunzai. “Most of the season is over anyway. Plus, people come here to get away from the stresses of their lives. With new ‘SOPs’ and rules in place, and with confusion as to how and who they will be enforced on, yeh dono client aur service provider ko zaleel karne ki baat hai [it will be insulting both to the clients and the service providers].”

“If they want to help us, what they can do is give us some monetary relief when it comes to paying back our loans,” he adds. “There are so many people who took out loans to start their own travel companies, or whose rent is due and they can’t pay it because there is no money coming in. We can sustain ourselves through our agriculture and livestock, but we will not be able to survive economically if we’re expected to dole out money when we’re not making an income in the first place.”


THE WAY FORWARD

Governments around the world love tourism and Pakistan is no exception. It creates jobs very quickly, is linked closely to development and can help diversify a country’s economy.

Porters gather by a campfire during an expedition before the lockdown | Nadir Toosy
Porters gather by a campfire during an expedition before the lockdown | Nadir Toosy

But with these tourists not coming in, locals in GB finally have the time to pause and reflect. “We’re trying to introduce a model of controlled tourism,” says Ali. “We can’t just let everyone in,” he says. “What kind of tourist do we want? Even educated people throw bottles out the window.”

Ali was the fifth Pakistani to climb the world’s highest peak, Mt Everest in 2019. He followed in the footsteps of his younger sister, Samina Baig, who was the third Pakistani to have summited Everest in 2013. Together they are the only Pakistanis to have completed the seven summits challenge — summiting the highest peak from each of the seven continents. Samina Baig is currently the interim tourism minister for GB.

Ali’s experiences of sustainable tourism in other countries have clearly left a deep impact on him. “When Samina and I went to climb the Vinson Massif (4,892m) in Antartica, Mt Denali (6,190m) in the United States and Aconcagua (6,961m) in Argentina… We had to bring our waste back,” he says. “Even our human waste. You simply cannot litter. It’s not allowed.”

What the SOPs actually are, how strictly they are followed in GB and what impact the return of tourists will have on the region’s economy and locals’ earnings remains to be seen.

As far as opening tourism during the pandemic, like most others, he believes the solution lies in the ‘Bhutan model’ of tourism. The country has strict controls over the number of tourists that enter the country and where they can stay and go. Tourists are also required to be accompanied or guided by a local licensed agent. This way, they are able to profit off tourism, sustain their environment and provide jobs to locals.

At the moment, the GB government has announced that they require all non-residential travellers to the region to get pre-tested for Covid-19 and register with a local, licensed agent. They intend to release a more comprehensive list of SOPs.

But will small, individual operators be able to follow those SOPs? “They haven’t released anything yet but, from what I hear, it’s only going to benefit the bigger operators and business owners over here,” says Hunzai. “They’re not designed for smaller, independent operators.”

“We’re already bogged down,” he adds. “I can’t even afford the government fee for a [mountain guide’s] licence over here because they ask for so much more ‘on top’.”

What the SOPs actually are, how strictly they are followed in GB and what impact the return of tourists will have on the region’s economy and locals’ earnings remains to be seen. But based on the response in other parts of the country FindMyAdventure’s CEO Muhammad Komail Abbas seems cautiously optimistic.

“The future of tourism will no longer be the same, guides and porters have already started making efforts to comply with the SOPs suggested by the NTCB [National Tourism Coordination Board] as well as the federal government,” he says. He also says that there is still “avid interest in tourism” and a “ demand backlog, created due to the nationwide lockdown and subsequent restrictions.” Abbas is confident that service providers are more than willing to cater to the rising demand, while following SOPs and abiding by any rules put forward by the government.

One hopes that he is right, but not everyone is so sure. Sabir has doubts about how impactful the SOPs can be. “I don’t even trust my own guides to follow them, what to talk of others!” he says. “I’m being very honest. We’re not a nation that will follow SOPs.”


Header image by Nadir Toosy


The writer is a member of staff. She tweets @Madeehasyed

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 12th, 2020