MUZAFFARABAD: Pakistan’s Oct. 8 earthquake shattered more than homes, schools and countless lives — it also smashed security restrictions that effectively banned foreigners from visiting the mountains of Azad Kashmir.
Within hours of the quake, foreign reporters, who previously only ventured into Azad Kashmir on rare, military-chaperoned trips, were heading into the mountains unsupervised to cover the disaster.
Thousands of foreign aid workers and troops have poured in to the Pakistani Himalayas to help survivors of the earthquake that killed more than 73,000 people.
Government officials say the old restrictions are gone and they are looking at tourism as a way to put the scenic region of snow-capped peaks, lush valleys and rivers back on its feet.
“We can try to convert this disaster into an opportunity,” Kashif Murtaza, chief administrative official in Azad Kashmir, told Reuters.
“The entire state of Azad Jammu and Kashmir will be opened to foreign tourists,” he said, referring to a recent announcement by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz on the end of restrictions on foreigners visiting Azad, Kashmir.
For decades Azad Kashmir has been the front line of one of the world’s most dangerous flash points.
Divided between Pakistan and India at the end of their first war, soon after their independence in 1947, the Muslim-majority region is the core dispute between the rivals, both of which have nuclear weapons.
For years Indian and Pakistani forces exchanged gunfire over a ceasefire line that snakes its way through the mountains until a late 2003 ceasefire silenced the guns and breathed life into peace efforts.
The quake has given the hesitant peace process another push with the two sides agreeing to open five points along their de facto border in Kashmir, known as the Line of Control, to allow divided families to meet and relief supplies to cross.
With the confrontation cooling, Pakistani authorities have decided the region no longer needs to be off limits to foreigners.
“The prime minister has made this announcement in view of the improvement of relations with India and softening of the Line of Control,” Murtaza said. “The thaw has changed the nature of security concerns.”
“It was a prohibited area and one had to obtain an NOC (no objection certificate) for a visit. That, obviously, was a constraint which will be no longer there,” he said.
On the other side of the mountains in occupied Kashmir, tourism has already picked up after the peace process led to a fall in violence in the valley.
Now Azad Kashmir hopes that before too long, it will also be ready to welcome at least some foreign visitors.
“We have breathtakingly beautiful sites in our area which are a real feast for nature lovers,” said tourism department official Irshad Ahmed Pirzada.
Domestic tourists have always been able to enjoy the spectacular scenery and hospitality of the people of Azad Kashmir.
A string of guest houses, most run by state agencies, grew up for the trickle of visitors from the lowlands but most were destroyed in the quake, Pirzada said.
He wants to see tourist accommodation rebuilt as fast as possible, but in the short-term alternatives would be needed. “We will be developing camping sites at some of our very beautiful high altitude spots,” he said.
The earthquake not only opened the region up to foreign visitors, it had also brought the region to the attention of the world. “Now many people who would not have considered visiting our area will change their minds,” he said.
Two consultants from the UN World Tourism Organisation visited Azad Kashmir this month and were enthusiastic about the possibilities.—Reuters