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Pakistan's tourism industry facing a grim future


Publication Date : 08-07-2013


Militant attacks and complacency by caretakers have left the once desirable natural attractions of Pakistan for waste


Sheristan is a beautiful name; it sounds so very poetic and at the same time manifestly close to the natural world. But contrary to what one may initially think upon hearing it, Sheristan is not the name of yet another state or town in the fabled world of Central Asia.

Sheristan is a tall and thinly built gentleman from Abbottabad in the Hazara region, who for all his more than 60 years of age refuses to shed his boyish looks. He is a former employee of the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) and presently managing the affairs of a small hotel on one of the Himalayan mountaintops at Ayubia.

Just days before a tragedy of unimaginable proportions struck the base camp at Nanga Parbat, a wave of cold had unexpectedly seized the Himalayan Mountains.

Sheristan, wearing his favourite jacket, was found sitting alone in his office enjoying the quietude of his surroundings when one literally forced him out of his state of reverie. He took a deep sigh when asked about his times in the tourism industry.

“You know when 9/11 happened I asked my staff to start packing up as that incident alone had the devastating potential of shutting down the local tourism industry once and for all,” Sheristan reminisced with palpable pangs of pain.

“We struggled to find chartered planes for the hundreds of anxious tourists banging at our doors, as tourism in northern Pakistan was at that time at the pinnacle of its glory, to evict them,” the consummate tourism operator recalled further.

While Sheristan thus talked, one had no idea that the insidious arms of terrorism were so close to cutting down the lifeline of the resolute mountaineers, who despite the daunting odds had never stopped being fascinated by Pakistan’s treacherous but glorious mountain peaks.

The cataclysmic turn of events of the last about 13 years has turned Sheristan into a cynic. “It is long since we saw the last of the real tourists; what we see now are the so called domestic tourists but in fact folks out on a day’s picnic,” he remarks with a wry smile on his slim drooping face.

Pointing to some girls wearing stilettos, and trying to climb on the chairlifts, he asks: “Come on, for God’s sake, do you call them tourists?”

He wistfully remembers what he calls the genuine domestic tourist of old days who after landing at Islamabad from Karachi would travel to the Kaghan Valley via Murree and Galyat. They would then go to Swat before returning home through Peshawar where they would spend their last saved penny on shopping in the once sprawling Bara markets.

Sheristan’s analysis of Pakistan’s tourism industry sounds very grim but true to the last word. Tourism has been devolved to the provinces in the light of the 18th Amendment but federal government is yet to transfer its main asset, the PTDC, to the federating units.

Presently there appears to be a great amount of uncertainty as regard to the future of PTDC and the fate of its employees resulting thereby in a crisis like situation where the PTDC employees in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have stopped providing services to those lodging in nearly three and a half dozens motels across the province.

Everything in PTDC is not hunky-dory. PTDC is in possession of some of the most fabulous sites in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where it has built motels with postcard pictures beauty that could beckon tourists from far and wide. But inside those stone and wood buildings with sloping roofs, there lies proof of years of neglect, inefficiency and complacency.

Officialdom of the type that has gnawed the public sector for decades has brought PTDC to a stage where employees have not been paid salaries for as long as 16 months.

PTDC is charging lodgers at the rates equivalent to a five star hotel for providing them with two flea-infested beds covered with old worn out bed sheets and a set of stinking quilts. The malfunctioning mid 20th century television sets have to be operated with lidless remote controls that more often than not refuse to comply with the users’ commands.

Seat covers on the commodes are mostly broken down forcing the users to adopt innovative postures to avoid inflicting injuries on themselves in the middle of nowhere.

Those tasked with the look after of PTDC in the federal capital should be happy that they have to transfer this baggage to the provinces where an equal, if not more, amount of mismanagement and lack of capacity may force the government on expediting the transfer of ownership to the private sector in the light of the avowed policies of the newly installed government.

Pakistan’s most prized asset in the field of tourism was and will forever be its ecology provided it is saved from the increasing pressure of the population and the timber mafia. Beautiful conifers, standing tall like the ever vigilant sentinels, on the Himalayas could be seen having been exposed to an undesirable practice of lumbering on a massive scale.

The beautiful mountain slopes are covered with the entrails of chickens the cooking and eating of which in various forms in the most unhygienic conditions looks to be the only attraction on the mountains these days.

As one walked in the woods this last week in the Himalayas, one saw some children from a local school wearing plastic gloves and picking up garbage from the forest under the supervision of their teachers.

They were found to be quite excited about the job that they were undertaking. One stopped for a while and appreciated their work.

At a little distance a large group of older students from Bahawalpur University were seen strolling in the woods with the volumes of their cellular phones playing Indian music set to the highest levels.

One couldn’t help stop asking them if they didn’t like the forest talking with a thousand voices. They smiled and switched off their phones. It is so encouraging to see people responding to advice in these troubling days when those expected to instill sobriety in the society are seen fomenting trouble from their self-bestowed positions of authority.

The mountaintop of Thandiani used to be so serene and quite until the turn of the last century that one could literally hear the sound of a coin dropping at a furlong’s distance.

It appeared to be so this last Friday on the longest day of the year when one decided to flee from the excessive heat in Abbottabad.

One went straight to a point far from the main bazaar where a two-room wood and stone hotel stands waiting to be occupied by one odd customer.

There was just one cook in the hotel on the lush green meadows and nature was at its most beautiful when suddenly the calm was broken by a piercing scream in the loudspeaker from the valleys down below.

For the next about five hours it was quite a struggle staying on the mountaintop from where one just didn’t want to run away at any cost.

The shrilling echoes came from a mosque down in the valleys where a moulvi (religious scholar) appeared to be yelling at everything in his sight, the pines and the rocks and the mountains.

One just couldn’t find out what was troubling him for Thandiani had always been a calm and remote mountaintop.

It is true that over the years the entire government machinery has been cast in a way where it only reacts to a situation.

The district administration must be asked what gives that moulvi freedom to exploit the emotions of his helpless audience in this manner.

Until that is done development of tourism will forever remain a dream.


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