“Business has been affected by about 30 per cent,” says event organiser Syed Osama bin Shehzad from Travel Tucker, a company specialising in taking tours. “People are a bit wary. They are reevaluating and discussing whether they should venture forth or not.”

Murree is just four to six hours drive away from Punjab’s major cities, allowing the masses to hop over for a long weekend. The practice there is for families to spend a night or two in their cars rather than at hotels which are known for their profiteering.

“The rates in Murree were rising on an hourly basis during this winter season. A hotel that was charging Rs15,000 per night, jacked-up its prices to Rs25,000 in two hours, spiralling up to Rs70,000 in some cases,” Mr Shehzad elaborates.

Some hotels did not include hot water in their packages — they were charging guests separately for it. Similarly, electric heaters were provided on an hourly basis but given the lack of electricity (as well as gas) their functionality was highly limited.

The rates in Murree were rising on an hourly basis — a hotel that was charging Rs15,000 per night, jacked-up its prices to Rs25,000 in two hours, spiralling up to Rs70,000 in some cases

While the Murree tragedy may have brought the issue of land sliding to the forefront, it’s fairly common up north. Despite the sub-zero temperatures, there are still some groups of families venturing through Pesham and Dasu in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with a few hotels operational in Hunza, Gilgit Baltistan, as well. “We were stuck for five hours in Dasu because of the land sliding,” recalls Zahra Tuba of Travel Tucker of her trip earlier this month.

Tour guides are well-versed with local weather conditions by staying in touch with guest houses and hoteliers. “When I set off from Karachi towards Fairy Meadows with a tour recently, the locals stopped us from proceeding owing to weather conditions. Once the weather cleared up, we were allowed to continue with our track,” says Ms Tuba making an argument for making arrangements with tour operators rather than flying solo.

Hoteliers and tour guides further up north repeatedly emphasise that Murree’s dynamics are different. “After the Attabad disaster when the lake was formed, there was a sudden boom in tourism,” says Ejaz Ahmed Khan of the luxury Hard Rock Hunza Resort & Villas. “There were not enough places to accommodate tourists so locals accommodated the guests in school playgrounds and provided blankets and food free of cost,” he says, laughably lamenting the three blankets still missing from the hotel.

Residents of Pakistan may differentiate between the warmer hospitality further north compared to Murree’s money mill. But foreigners to whom PTI was planning to tout Pakistan’s national beauty may lump the entire region as ill-managed and disaster-prone.

According to media reports, no more than 8,000 vehicles are allowed to enter Murree during the recent spells of rain and snowfall. According to the ill-fated tweet of the Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry, more than 100,000 tourist cars had entered the city creating congestion and leading to untimely deaths.

In its manifesto, PTI had recognised the tourism sector as one of those that could contribute towards creating 10 million jobs over five years. The idea was to “promote and position Pakistan as Asia’s best-kept secret in the global tourism market” by developing four new tourist destinations each year. A seemingly ludicrous goal given not only the lack of regulation of existing tourist sites but also how Pakistan is perceived internationally.

According to the travel advisory issued by the United States: “A local history of terrorism and ongoing ideological aspirations of violence by extremist elements have led to indiscriminate attacks on civilians. Terrorists may attack with little or no warning, targeting transportation hubs, markets, shopping malls, military installations, airports, universities, tourist locations, schools, hospitals, places of worship, and government facilities.”

Canada’s travel advisory of Pakistan is arguably more disturbing. It says: “Forced marriage affecting foreigners occurs. It sometimes occurs without the affected person’s prior knowledge or consent.”

PTI is promoting Skardu as the city has an airport with direct flights, meaning fewer hours on the road. While more airports in Northern Areas would make them more accessible, the fares need to be affordable for the middle-income groups. A round trip of Rs60,000 per person racks up a bill of a quarter of a million for a family of four. Perhaps railway tracks could make local tourism more affordable for locals.

Any semi-decent sport, be it Karachi’s Manora beach or Balochistan’s Kund Malir, is found to be packed every time the country has a few free days in its hands. Pakistanis are entertainment starved and are willing to load cars and buses to enjoy whatever limited avenues of recreation available. If attracting foreigners is too big an obstacle in a conflict-ridden country, then the least the government can do is better regulate the tourism industry for locals.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 24th, 2022


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