In the first week of May, a Malaysian woman named Jamielah Binti Yaqoob arrived in Islamabad for an adventure of a lifetime in Gilgit-Baltistan. But her experience in Pakistan turned sour before it even began: she was deported by immigration officials for not holding a valid Pakistani visa.
The deportation is a tragedy of errors in itself.
Earlier this year, the interior ministry and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) had sent a notification to tour operators, stating that on-arrival visas would be issued to nationals from Pakistan’s “tourism-friendly countries” if the tourists organised their visit through designated tour operators. Malaysia was among the 24 countries that qualified for this facility.
Jamielah’s arrival in Pakistan was facilitated by a registered tour operator in the country. When she contacted him for help at the Islamabad airport, he approached immigration authorities to inform them that the Malaysian national had arrived in Pakistan according to the policy laid out by the interior ministry. Immigration authorities, however, claimed that they had yet to receive such a notification. Jamielah was summarily deported.
Ahead of the announcement of a new tourism policy in Gilgit-Baltistan, Eos explores the roadblocks that have prevented the region’s immense economic promise from being realised
Unfortunate as it was, the episode succinctly captures the state of the tourism industry in Pakistan: tangled in disorder and departmental ad hocism.
In principle, for a country with tourism potential, the tourism sector can become the engine of growth and development. The sector encapsulates far more than core hospitality and transportation functions. Tourism can be broadly subdivided into transportation, entertainment, recreation, retail, food and beverage, and accommodation. Investment in these six heads, in turn, produces better goods, more jobs, higher wages, more efficient services and, of course, more money in taxes.
But for these elements to come together, there ought to be a master plan, manned by a central authority, with everyone pulling in the same direction. And while other provinces are free to create their plans and set up their regulators, Gilgit-Baltistan is hampered by tourism still being run by the federal government.
In fact, it was the 18th Amendment of the Constitution that proved to be the death knell for the tourism industry in Gilgit-Baltistan. The amendment devolved the tourism portfolio to the provinces — powers were subsequently transferred to the other four provinces but, in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), tourism affairs were to be run from Islamabad, under the Federal Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan.
Part of the reason that tourism in Gilgit-Baltistan was not devolved was the money involved. The federal government took the position that since the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) owned assets worth billions of rupees, the entity could not be devolved because it was registered under the Companies Act.
This has translated into the more significant decisions being made by the ministry in Islamabad, sometimes without understanding local dynamics. The ministry is responsible — at least in theory — for issuing licences to travel agencies, tours operators and hotels. The powers of registering and monitoring hotels both rest with the ministry.
The GB Council in the Islamabad Secretariat grants climbing and trekking permits to foreigners. Two types of permits are issued to foreign tourists: for climbing all peaks above 6,500 metres and for trekking in restricted areas (restricted areas are those which fall near the borders of Afghanistan, China and India). Royalty is paid to the GB Council for climbing and trekking in exchange for a permit.
No permits are needed for foreign and local visits to open areas or a climb below 6,500 metres. Open areas are all spaces within Gilgit-Baltistan territory except the 6,500-metre-high peaks and the areas situated near the borders. Pakistani nationals are exempted from this process.
The royalty rates for climbing and trekking groups vary according to the height of the peak and if they are situated in restricted areas. For example, about 7,200 US dollars are charged in royalty from every expedition climbing the K-2. There are seven members in an expedition group. Another tax is 50 US dollars per member for a month to explore treks situated in restricted areas.
According to the Gilgit-Baltistan Council Secretariat, last year, 129 trekking groups and 455 others visited restricted areas while 35 expedition groups and 240 others attempted to climb peaks above 6,500 metres. This year, the Gilgit-Baltistan Council Secretariat has received applications for 45 foreign trekking groups and 36 mountaineering groups — the highest in the past three years.
There is clearly money in the system, but is it being reinvested? And which authority will have the final say over how money is utilised? This confusion over who has how much power to exercise has had adverse effects.
Tourism in Gilgit-Baltistan today does not have a dedicated provincial department. It has been lumped in with culture and youth development — there are only 60 employees of the department across Gilgit-Baltistan to take care of all three sectors. In other words, the department has vast scope but is heavily understaffed.
Over the years, the tourism, culture and youth development department has proven that it has no power to keep a check on authorised travel agencies, tours operators and hotels. Its measures have largely been small-scale: 10 information centres were established last year at entry and exit points of every district and at two airports.
These information centres were established at Babusar Pass, Thore Chilas, Zero-Point Chilas, Gech area of Astore district, Sukar area in Gilgit , Sikandarabad area in Nagar, Nasir Abad area in Hunza, and Istak area in Baltistan, Skardu airport and Gilgit airport.
Personnel of Rescue 1122 and some servants of the department have also been deputed at these points; their task is to guide tourists about various destinations of the region and provide them with pamphlets and other information materials.
However, services provided at these centres are considered inadequate to meet tourist requirements. Understaffing is one issue but these information centres even lack proper maps to guide tourists.
If there is fanfare around setting up new information centres, it is misplaced. But what the provincial department of tourism, culture and youth development did manage to achieve, however, was approval from the finance department for a few small projects, last year.
These projects included the establishment of tent villages in 20 locations, while another project provides 70,000 rupees in loan to every person interested in converting part of their homes as a guest house. Department officials claim that 130 individuals utilised this facility; in other words, the department invested 9.1 million rupees to help locals earn money by providing accommodation services.
Typically, in Gilgit-Baltistan, accommodation is calculated in terms of the number of beds (rather than in terms of rooms or new facilities popping up). Through the measures taken by the provincial department, officials estimate that the accommodation capacity in Gilgit-Baltistan has swelled up to 9,000 beds.
But residents paint a different picture.
Akbar Hussain is a resident of Hoper, the famous tourist point situated on the upper side of the Hoper glacier. Although thousands of local and foreign tourists visit Hoper every season, there are only two dozen beds available for tourist accommodation. Last year, the tourist department gave eight tents and 10 sleeping bags to set up a tent village in a drive to build tent villages in 20 locations of Gilgit-Baltistan. But this hasn’t solved the problem either.
“The project was not successful because there was a lack of many other things that are needed to run a tent village,” says Hussain. “Instead, if the government provides loans to build a guest house in the area, I am sure that even I can return the money after one tourist season.”
Here’s the twist: although the chief minister had announced providing loans to construct guest houses across the province, provincial officials now claim that, “the plan [was] turned down by the federal government.”
Meanwhile, the Gilgit-Baltistan government last year allocated over 1,974 million rupees for ongoing and new projects for the tourism, culture and youth development department. This budget was to be spent on projects such as restoration and upkeep of historical monuments, developing and improving trekking trails, provision of missing facilities in existing sports infrastructure, and destination development initiatives.
There were plans to build a rock-climbing wall in Skardu and in Gilgit, to rehabilitate the Damote Polo ground, construct a tourist resort in Ghizer and inaugurate a centre for musicology. There was talk, too, of constructing tourism offices in Hunza, Nagar and Diamer, as well as tourists facilitation centres on the Karakoram Highway. Plans were also afoot to build rest houses on the Indus River and a five-kilometre-long trekking track in Hunza.
These plans have proved to be too ambitious.
Provincial authorities maintain secrecy over the exact details of what expenses have been made and where. Barring notable exceptions, most plans have remained on paper. Meanwhile, the ministry in Islamabad has offered little in the way of funds or logistics to back the designs drawn up at the provincial level.
GROUSE OF THE LOCALS
The village of Sadpara in Skardu has thrown up many heroes — ordinary men who scaled great heights without any technical education, money or support from the government.
Today, Sadpara’s most famous son is Muhammad Ali Sadpara. The world knows him as the 41-year-old mountaineer who has already scaled Nanga Parbat (8,125m), Gasherbrum I (8,080m) and Gasherbrum II (8,051m).
Before him was Hasan Sadpara, who is credited as being the first Pakistani to have climbed six eight-thousanders including the world’s highest peak, Everest (8,848m). Hassan Sadpara had also climbed the K2 (8,611m), Gasherbrum I, Gasherbrum II, Nanga Parbat (8,125 m), and Broad Peak (8,051m).
“I got to know that more foreign tourists visit Nepal in one day than the total number visiting Pakistan in one year,” says Nazir Sabir. “On average, 5,000 foreign climbers arrive in Nepal [every year] whereas merely 500 hundred climbers come to Pakistan.”
Both men started their careers off as porters.
“Hasan Sadpara became a world-famous mountaineer without government support,” says Muhammad Ali Sadpara. “Imagine what he could have been if he had some support.”
Hasan Sadpara died on November 21, 2016, in Rawalpindi, after losing a protracted battle with cancer. The government didn’t come to his support in his most pressing time of need. The lament in Sadpara is that Hasan didn’t have to die this way.
“His family appealed to the chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan to support his treatment,” narrates Muhammad Ali Sadpara, “but unfortunately his request was turned down by the government.”
Had Hasan been alive, he, too, would have pointed to the absence of mountaineering schools in Gilgit-Baltistan as a glaring blind spot. Muhammad Ali regrets that, while in Nepal some cities boast at least five climbing schools, there in’t a single climbing school in Pakistan. This has very direct consequences for the local youth.
“About 200 Nepalese Sherpas are being hired by foreign expeditions as porters to scale mountains in Pakistan,” explains Muhammad Ali Sadpara. “They are being paid in millions of rupees. Our youth are 10 times more energetic and physically stronger than the Sherpas but our children don’t have the requisite technical training.”
There are some naturally talented youngsters in and around Sadpara, some of whom had asked Muhammad Ali Sadpara to request foreign teams to take them along on their climbs.
“When I talk with the foreign mountaineers if they would hire energetic youth interested in climbing, they ask me whether they are trained in climbing,” related the world-renowned climber. “I have to tell them no.”
And there is a perfectly logical reason for that.
“Climbing is a dangerous game and a small mistake by climbers can cost a life,” says Muhammad Ali. So, climbers do not take any risks while selecting porters because the porter has to care and sometimes carry the climber during the adventure.”
The porter, for example, must be trained enough to rescue someone who has been stranded or has fallen into a crevice. Porters should be aware of how to use oxygen supplies, he needs to know how to face strong winds or survive during a snow avalanche. They are also supposed to anticipate adversity, such as food running out or having no sleeping bags.
“People of this region are extremely rugged,” says Muhammad Ali, “there is no doubt about that. But mountaineering needs technical training and our government does not take any interest in building human resources.”
This sentiment is echoed by Nazir Sabir, the first Pakistani mountaineer to have scaled Everest. Sabir is known for his K2 climb through the toughest west ridge. This path is now called the Nazir Sabir Route. The government of Pakistan conferred him the Pride of Performance award in 1982 and the Sitara-i-Imtiaz in 2001.
“It was eye-opener when I visited Nepal,” recalls Sabir. “I got to know that more foreign tourists visit Nepal in one day than the total number visiting Pakistan in one year. On average, 5,000 foreign climbers arrive in Nepal [every year] whereas merely 500 hundred climbers come to Pakistan.”
The revenue generated from foreign trekking and climbing groups in 2017, as per the Gilgit-Baltistan Council, was recorded at 26 million rupees. Only a tiny fraction of this went to porters. Even with the dwarfing difference with Nepal in terms of numbers, Sabir suggests that, with more governmental effort, the youth of Gilgit-Baltistan would start reaping financial rewards if they were trained and more tourists started relying on them.
“But I am ashamed to admit that people who matter have never understood the importance of tourism and how its potential can be exploited,” says the mountaineering legend.
5,000: this is the total number of beds available across Gilgit-Baltistan for all tourists. This figure is drawn by a government survey and includes government-run and privately-run hotels, motels and guest houses. Recent times have seen many tourists spending the night in their vehicles — simply because there was no space to stay at any lodging facility.
Inadequate accommodation simply means that Gilgit-Baltistan is not prepared to become a world-class tourist destination, just yet.
The experience last year was that, in peak season, both foreign and local tourists had to pay a premium for accommodation, irrespective of its quality. Those who didn’t find lodging set up tents on the main roads and camped out. There is shortage of accommodation, of course, but many of those who were able to find lodging last year later complained of the substandard quality of hospitality in Gilgit-Baltistan. Since the shortage of rooms became an immediate concern, those who found space ignored the need for cleanliness and acceptable service. But in the aftermath, an introspection is in order.
The tasks of registering hotels, guest houses and travel agencies and to keep checks and balances on their services, are the responsibility of the Department of Tourist Services (DTS). But since the DTS is based in Islamabad, it has no footprint in Gilgit-Baltistan. It cannot possibly keep a check on new hotels or motels being built. No lodging facility is therefore being registered at the DTP while only 90 tour operators have been listed; the actual numbers are higher, of course.
As a result, many hotels and motels are running without any checks while many tour operators are unauthorised. As one operator narrates, the hotel owners tend to jack prices up after a landslide, when roads get blocked.
“Last year, we brought a group of domestic tourists to Gilgit-Baltistan,” he recalls. “Domestic tourists are usually on a budget and evade any extra expenses. We got stuck in a landslide and were forced to lodge at a hotel. More shocking than the landslide was the exorbitant rate being demanded by the hotel and which we had to pay.”
The hotel industry is, indeed, in a sorry state but this begs the question: where is the government sector?
The government runs its motel chain through the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC). With over one hundred billion rupees in assets, the PTDC has 14 motels in the north of Pakistan alone. Here’s the twist: despite the PTDC generating money from its lodging facilities, the government of Pakistan still provides 18 crore rupees annually for the PTDC to sustain its operations.
PTDC Managing Director Chaudhry Abdul Ghafoor Khan acknowledges this fact, and explains that the PTDC is not just short-staffed but also has a lack of professionals. The corporation currently employs only 533 people and operates under the federal Cabinet Division.
“It was a crime to devolve the tourism ministry,” asserts Khan. “Current PTDC revenues are only enough to pay staff salaries.”
While the PTDC chief bemoans the shortage of finances, he simultaneously talks a big game about plans to acquire land in Naltar, Gilgit and Shigar districts to build more PTDC motels.
“We are working to have other hotels on our panel,” he says, “and an online booking facility is also being introduced. We are looking into plans to construct about 300 tents at the existing facility of PTDC motels.”
On the ground, though, PTDC’s absence from the scene has emboldened private parties to fleece tourists as they wish. However, Hunza Hotel Association President Ali Madad argues that the arbitrary increase in prices is the result of hotel owners being squeezed by the high cost of running business.
“The region has had an electricity shortfall since God knows when,” he says, “and gas and wood aren’t readily available, either. Hotel owners often have to arrange some sort of electricity supply. If they use oil-based generators, this adds a significant cost to running hotel operations.”
For the hotel owners’ representative, hotel businesses can only do booming business from May to October. In other months, hotel owners are basically paying their staff out of the profits that they earned six months prior.
Meanwhile, as mentioned earlier, government plans to open up homes as rest houses have yet to see the light of day.
PERCEPTION AND POLICY
There was a time when Pakistan International Airlines served as the promoter of tourism to the country. That was when the foreign ministry was tackling tourism. This changed when former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto created the ministry of tourism to deal with affairs related of the tourism industry.
But the first tourism policy only came in Bhutto’s daughter’s regime, more than a decade later. Not all subsequent governments followed the plan and some even decided it wasn’t significant enough to pursue. But then came General Pervez Musharraf, who made a dedicated team to promote tourism and instituted a tourist-friendly visa policy. This visa policy was applicable to 64 countries as citizens from these nations could get a one-month visa stamped on arrival at the airport (or any other entry point) free of charge.
Things suddenly changed after the Twin Towers attacks on 9/11, however. Musharraf’s open policy was firmly shut and tourism took a heavy hit. In many ways, 9/11 caused the downfall of the tourism industry in Pakistan. While genuine foreign tourists started to look upon Pakistan in an unfavourable light, officials in Pakistan treated all foreigners as suspects. There was unnecessary harassment at airports and, indeed, in government offices. The very next year, tourism plunged to its lowest for many, many years.
The current tourism policy was approved by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, just two months before his ouster. And while the policy seeks to provide a semblance of direction, its implementation is a separate matter altogether.
The thrust of the policy sees the government as facilitator and regulator, rather than implementer. Over the next five years, the policy envisages more public-private partnerships, improved institutional capacity and greater resource mobilisation. In line with the National Tourism Policy and Tourism Master Plan, the Gilgit-Baltistan Tourism Policy now tackles — at least on paper — weak administration of the tourism sector, inadequate infrastructure, poor road and air accessibility, inadequate investment into the tourism sector, and insufficient or inferior research about tourism’s potential and market trends.
There are other issues at play, too.
Pakistan’s visa policy is a big hurdle for foreign tourists, as getting a visa takes weeks on end. Last year, the government of Pakistan had announced on-arrival visas to tourists from 24 countries, notably the United States, China, the United Kingdom, France, Norway, Austria, Finland and Greece, from January 2018. However, this policy has not been implemented and it still takes three months for foreigners to obtain a Pakistani visa. Creating hurdles in the process of issuing a visa means that many tourists drop Pakistan as a destination in favour of a country with a friendlier visa regime.
Muhammad Ali, the joint secretary of the Pakistan Association of Tour Operators (PATO), goes as far as to say that Pakistani embassies abroad have failed to promote Pakistan tourism destinations. Moreover, they have failed to impress their presence in world tourism fairs, thereby not being able to create a positive perception about Pakistan.
Then there are issues of the policy being modern. The tourism policy was never revised once it was formulated in 1992. This means that rules such as foreign tourists being barred from snapping pictures on the mountainside are still in force.
Any modern tourist destination today also boasts modern communications infrastructure. But the Gilgit-Baltistan region usually faces up to 20 hours of loadshedding. Internet facilities are weak; 3G and 4G services are not provided by any cell-phone operators while landline internet services are often in disrepair.
Another factor that needs consideration is how to bring various stakeholders on to the same page. In recent times, the Pakistan Air Force has been successful in building a modern ski resort in Naltar. A competition was also organised to bring foreign skiers and introduce them to the new slopes. But the road to Naltar has more potholes than ever before. If the provincial and federal governments had been pulling in the same direction, then roads — at least to major tourist destinations — need to be constructed urgently.
Similarly, the road from the Karakoram Highway to Fairy Meadow in Diamer district is dangerous. A small mistake can be fatal. Last year, there were 30 casualties on Babusar peak due to unauthorised tour operators bringing drivers unfamiliar with the terrain of Gilgit-Baltistan. One argument is to ensure better implementation of rules that hand out licences to tour operators. Another is to open the Skardu airport to international flights, thereby removing the need for road transport to Gilgit-Baltistan altogether.
In the final analysis, tourism in Gilgit-Baltistan cannot be the preserve of one or the other department or ministry. It is an economy that brings together many actors. And as a fledgling economy, it needs more investment from various actors. The new tourism policy needs to address the ongoing challenges because the solutions are all rooted in the fundamentals.