The tourists’ haven that is GB

By Syed Shamsuddin  

Many countries around the globe today are genuinely boastful of tourism as the backbone of their economy obviously for its being only viable and single largest source of revenue for their respective governments. Indubitably, these countries have seemingly made remarkable strides in this crucial sector because of their sagacity and pragmatic approach whereby they made concerted efforts in doing away with infirm and ad hoc measures that could plague tourism development and eventually, yanked successfully back from the edge of economic predicament they were earlier in.

There can be no denying the fact that Gilgit-Baltistan constitute a territory which unquestionably gets reckoned as veritable ‘haven on earth’ for the tourists around the world over which is all ascribable to the unique and fascinating geological composition of this region and for that matter, thousands of foreign tourists proudly undertake visits to Pakistan each year in order to slake their thirst of having a bird’s eye view of the abundant natural beauty especially of this region on the whole where all the munificence of the nature becomes very well evident. Innumerable majestic mountains enfolding immeasurably virgin peaks, unfathomable azure lakes, streams and rivulets, legendary meadowy spots - what and what not – that together make one immensely spell-bound and engrossed to put it succinctly. These all, characterized by the immense and unimaginable panoramic impact, ceaselessly attracts the visitors to such an amazing extent that one ever getting here is bound to get imbued with a perennial longing to see these areas very closely and minutely again and again during one’s life cycle.

Surely, out of the total number of the foreign tourists visiting Pakistan, seventy-eight per cent if not more to put unexaggeratedly, embark upon tortuous journeys with driven by a yearning and ebullience to catch glimpses of these areas to revel for a while and enjoy the abundant natural beauty. Ipso facto, the yearly revenue from tourism must correspond proportionately to the ratio. It cannot be gainsaid that the construction of the Karakoram Highway (KKH) aided by the air-service eased to some extent, free and unfettered movement of the tourists these days while the proximity with China via the undulating Khunjrab Pass (16002 ft above sea level) - literally the gateway to China as the same may appropriately be termed - is yet another source and vantage point of facilitation from the standpoint of giving a genuine boost to trans-border tourists’ traffic.

The extension of Skardu aerodrome a couple of years ago has become greatly instrumental in welcoming the tourists into the Gilgit-Baltistan in a befitting manner as the ‘subject-to-weather’ flights earlier would utterly fail to emplane fully the tourists despite indefatigable operation of the Fokker flights from Islamabad to this region and vice versa. But nonetheless, the present air-service miserably fails to cater to the growing number of foreign tourists most of whom having a tight itinerary would prefer an unhindered air-lift from Rawalpindi to Gilgit or Skardu and vice versa. The unimpeded plying of luxurious vehicles on the Karakoram Highway between the Gilgit-Baltistan and Rawalpindi is indeed, facilitative insofar as unhindered movement is considered but nevertheless, there are certain tourists from abroad who refrain from such a non-stop journey along such a zigzaggingly tortuous terrain mainly for fear of getting stuck up en route due to formidable land-boulder slips - a phenomenon intermittently causing scare. The completion of the Karakoram Highway has now undergone almost two decades but there are still occurrences of land-boulder slips at many places in the course of which one has sometimes, to get stranded though only for a while, as immediate clearance soon follows with the strenuous efforts of the road maintenance staff. This recurring sliding phenomenon is fundamentally because of the fact that the rocky terrain all along was indescribably jolted with a gigantic dynamiting at the time of construction of the road hence the mountains along the road have become shaky and fissured being still unsettled which is however, expected to cease after a couple of years.

This all in view, the extension of Gilgit aerodrome seems to be a sine qua non as more influx of foreign tourists squarely hinges on this project which therefore, signifies its early accomplishment. It is note worthy that a vast area of land stands already acquired a couple of years ago for its construction which is now lying fenced. This acquisition was resorted to in the wake of a meticulous feasibility study and preliminary survey hence all decks must stand preliminarily cleared for its implementation except provision of required funds for taking the construction work in hand. Needless to say, that the completion of this vital project is likely to help multiply the present number of foreign tourists avidly seeking an opportune moment to visit the Gilgit-Baltistan. Viewed futuristically, tourism is likely to assume the role of ‘economic backbone’ of our country provided this sector receives direly needed attention instead of a mere perfunctory handling and unpragmatic approach.

A revolutionary package is therefore required in this regard with a well-devised mechanism as necessitated under the circumstances to chalk out a comprehensive programme at highest national level whereby all snags confronting tourism could be effectively tackled. An aerial view of the entire Gilgit-Baltistan will reveal the fact that this land is, in fact, a bounty hence a blessing for the country not in terms of its gigantic its vast water towers serving as a life-vein to the rest of the country but for many other counts as well id est the immense potential it offers in terms of vast mineral deposits, tourism etc., leaving aside its providing strategic overland linkage with China and other adjoining countries. The rest of its craggy mountains with innumerable peaks make this area a hub of mountaineers, trekkers as the entire area constitutes the most beautiful and unspoilt terrain in the world today that certainly augurs well in the context of revolutionizing Pakistan’s economy by boosting tourism. As referred to earlier, many countries in the world today rely squarely on tourism to be the mainstay insofar as the largest source of revenue generation is considered while Pakistan may top them all if we are able to evolve a comprehensive and pragmatic policy to give a substantial boost to tourism here.

These Areas, as set against the background of the spectacular trans-Himalayas and the other two criss-crossing ranges they are, not simply offer a chance to tourists to see a unique culture, fascinating petro-glyphs (rock-carvings-especially prehistoric ones), the loftiest peaks and the largest and the longest glaciers in the world outside the polar region - are all but source of an abiding attraction for adventurers and tourists around the globe desirous to scale virgin peaks. This is in addition to this region’s playing host to those who may like rafting in the cascading and meandering rivers, trekkers and others want a journey experience along the magnificent mountainous highway beneath the beetling cliffs and the rocky mountains. Provision of basic infrastructural facilities everywhere, guarantees uplift in all sectors and the transport and communication tops them all. In olden days, such facilities were almost like a day dream as the region, all along the history, remained quite land-locked with the dizzying natural ramparts of impenetrable mountains in the strange geographical setting. As said earlier, the construction of the KKH has now ushered in a rather different era where nothing seems impossible in the context of development hence every possible measures can be undertaken in an unhindered manner and as such strides would, alongside, be instrumental in raising the living standards of the people as the population here has by the time, assumed ominous dimensions.

The operation of ‘safari flights’ by Pakistan International Airlines to help tourists have a bird’s eye view is surely a very good plan while this needs to be broadened to an uninterrupted copter service which though started sometimes back on an experimental basis, has been discontinued for unknown reasons. In difficult mountainous regions like the Gilgit-Baltistan, the latter is indispensably required to be ensured on a regular basis in order to help tourists move freely from one place to another within the Gilgit-Baltistan.

The proposed copter service should be made available at Gilgit for linkage of the same with the adjoining valleys like Skardu, Ghanche, Ghizar, Hunza, Nagar, Astore, Chilas etc. Alongside, widening of Gilgit-Skardu Road attaches utmost importance while old suspension bridges spanning rivers like that of the old Gilgit bridge and that of Danyore beneath the Shrine which was perhaps constructed in sixties, need be replaced with bailey bridges if not concrete ones as bailey equipments can now easily be imported from China. The passage across these suspension bridges is a horrible experience. The tremor one receives once embarked on them while driving a vehicle or otherwise, is quite hair-tingling event especially when weather is a bit windy. It still becomes more horrific at the stage of entry and exit where the intensity of the jolts with the tempestuous moving to and fro of the bridge can be felt all the more dreadfully.

It will be pertinent to mention that some hotels have been erected in the Gilgit-Baltistan at such places where there is influx of tourists. All these constructions have mostly been undertaken with the assistance of development finance corporations (DFIs) especially the Regional Development Finance Corporation (RDFC) as the chief financier, but the dilemma being generally encountered here is that unlike the rest of the country, the hotels in this region can seasonally be run and that too for a period of only four months’ obviously because of unpropitious climatic conditions obtaining in here during winters when the number of tourists dwindles.

As opposed to this, hotels the down country become operational round the year on a full swing. The terms and conditions pertaining to grant of loans as per prevalent regulations are uniform for all alike throughout the country while this should, as a matter of fact, conform to the ground realities obtaining in Gilgit-Baltistan in order that the people getting such loans could face no constraints in making repayments and still more could be induced to get unhindered loan facilities for construction of hotels for the seasonal tourists.

(Originally published in The Muslim dated December 02, 1997)

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