ISLAMABAD: The northern areas of Pakistan are like canvases that portray the joy and contentment bestowed by the inexhaustible beauty of nature’s boundless forms.
But the beautiful valleys miss their admirers who once used to visit in great numbers to watch and bask in the glory of nature. That is because tourism has failed to reach its full potential in Gilgit-Baltistan, conceded experts associated with the industry in the Ministry of Tourism as well as those in parliament.
Worst, they dread that these tourist retreats `are in danger of slipping further behind`.
Experts in the tourism industry pointed the fingers at the government for mismanagement of policies despite the fact that tourism was the largest industry in Gilgit and all the way to Hunza and beyond.
“It`s just not government`s priority,” said Senator Pervaiz Rashid, who is member of the Senate standing committee on culture and tourism, citing his reason for the held-back growth.
Tourism could play a key role in the region`s future economy, he said, adding: “But the industry needs stronger, clearer support from the government to reach its full potential. And that we fear does not seem coming.”
Worst hit, of course, was the hotel industry. “Last year we had less than 2,500 foreigners visit our valleys. This numbers include the Chinese who are building the Karakoram Highway,” lamented the owner of the famed Eagle`s Nest Hotel, Ali Madad Galiu who is also president of Hunza Hotels Association.
According to the Ministry of Tourism, the war on terror has kept foreign tourists away. “Most of the westerners believed that Gilgit and Hunza were in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and confused it with the conflict in Swat where Pakistan army was sweeping on the ground,” said a senior official with the ministry.
Then came the floods and later the Attabad lake disaster, he explained. “When these factors had done enough damage, the government abandoned the valleys and the people. There are no rehabilitation programmes to fix infrastructure or help the hotel owners, tour operators and transporters by providing them some kind of financial backing to keep the industry running,” the official said.
“While Attabad was the focus and so were schools, nobody focused on hotel and other small associated businesses,” said Raja Hussain, who owns a hotel in Gilgit, adding how media needed to return to highlight the aftermath.
Alam Shah, the general manager of Hilltop Hotel in Karimabad, lamented that Gilgit-Baltistan had not seen a dime of funds announced by Department for International Development (DFID) for development purposes after impacts of war on terror.
Experts connected with the tourism industry said lack of infrastructure and delay on part of the government in developing tourist resorts in these mountain resorts had been one of the reasons for the drop in not just foreign but local tourist traffic that was the backbone of the industry.
“Tourists and excursionists are forced to opt for safer areas for rest and relaxation because access to these places has almost been impossible. The region abounds in scenic spots but these sites have neither been developed nor projected in the state`s tourism promotion campaign,” said the official with the ministry.
Azam Khan, who visited Hunza last year, was delayed for two days because of flight cancellation. “That cost us extra two days of hotel stay besides missing work. It`s ridiculous that there are only two flights to some of the world`s most popular retreats and that too subject to weather conditions,” he said.
The decline in the biggest trade again speaks volumes about the government apathy and the utter disregard for tourism promotion in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Chairperson Senate standing committee on culture and tourism Nilofar Bakhtiar, who is also a former federal minister for tourism, described the predicament best when she said: “There has never been a tourism policy for Gilgit-Baltistan.”