Talking about tourism
Earlier this month, during his visit to Sonmiani Beach in Balochistan’s Lasbela district, Prime Minister Imran Khan proposed to establish a “splendid tourist resort” along the province’s coastal belt with the potential to attract a “large number of people from the Muslim world”. ”.
He added that “our people”, facing problems because of Islamophobia, do not want to take their wives and children to Europe and elsewhere. So, he said, “A place like Pakistan has great potential where people from Muslim countries will come for tourism. “
A Muslim, family-friendly beach resort in Pakistan – where women aren’t seen sunbathing or playing volleyball in bikinis; the food is halal; and sunsets and happy hours a definite no-no – would cut off a niche market, eye the great potential of “halal tourism”. But why limit this great potential to Muslim tourists only? Our high mountains have always attracted and captivated visitors of all kinds. Why not the unexplored beaches?
The prime minister’s statement was in line with CPEC’s plan to develop Balochistan’s beaches along the Makran Coastal Route – including Hammerhead, Ormara and Astola Island – for economic opportunities.
But, in Pakistan, the challenge of developing tourism is much more complex. It is not just a question of attracting tourists in droves by connecting remote places with a network of highways; it is about protecting the local environment and culture, stimulating economies and making communities equal stakeholders.
From his cricket days, Imran Khan has aspired to turn his passion for adventure tourism into a booming industry for Pakistan. Thus, upon coming to power in 2018, he appointed his Zulfi Bukhari to support tourism in the country. Social media influencers promoted Pakistan. They posted engaging images of snow-capped peaks crossing the floating clouds of Gilgit-Baltistan, raging rivers flowing through the verdant valleys of Azad Kashmir, intricate geometric and floral frescoes at Mughal heritage sites. .
It might be impulsive to dismiss their contribution as cosmetic – as travelers from all over the world have indeed flocked to the northern regions in recent years.
Whether it is because of the input of influencers or the boredom of Covid and the unblocking of travel sites, this rising tide of tourists has become an unacceptable tsunami. The once idyllic towns of Kalam, Naran and Skardu are now out of control. There is waste everywhere, and where there is none, there are hotels, some on several floors, with their architecture totally incongruous with nature.
Take the case of Swat, for example. Zubair Torwali, a Bahraini resident in Swat, claims that “foreigners” (not locals) own most of the hotels in his area. He says most of the land bought by them is in cash. In the absence of strict land regulations, land acquisition has become an easy bait to invite ambitious and greedy investors with little understanding of indigenous culture and environment.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa tourism department spokesperson Latif-ur-Rehman informs that during the last Eid holiday, between July 17 and July 24, more than 550,000 tourist vehicles entered the division. from Malakand, more than 200,000 vehicles and one million tourists entered Galiyat and some 1.2 million tourists in 300,000 vehicles visited Kaghan. Horrific footage posted by those stuck in the jam showed bumper to bumper and miles and miles of motor vehicles.
Imagine the high carbon footprint left by travelers, the polluted air that residents breathe and the heat emitted by motor vehicles to endure.
Attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists by expanding a road network or building luxury resorts does not necessarily boost local economies. “At best, people can more easily access larger, more crowded markets nearby to trade goods like soft drinks. But the profit margins of a local trader on a bottle of soft drink are tiny, ”says Ali Arqam, journalist and researcher based in Peshawar in the KP.
Ihsanullah Khan owns a hotel in Kalam. He thinks Kalam has grown on its own – “There is no government contribution” – where the roads are bumpy, clouds of dust engulf the roadsides, power cuts are common, hotels are not regulated, garbage is poorly managed and hygiene is compromised.
Of course, tourism brings money and jobs to tourist sites, but at the cost of damaging the ecosystem, culture and heritage. “Kalam is overcrowded, not developed. It desperately needs a regulator, ”he adds.
In Lasbela, the prime minister assured that the federal government would work out a plan with the chief minister of Balochistan, Jam Kamal Khan Alyani, to bring in consultants to the region and decide how best to use it for tourism. This is a great promise as there are not many knowledgeable tourism planners or visionaries with solutions to control tourism in Pakistan – those who can get us out of this mess are putting limits on the number of tourists to a site; propose tourism redistribution techniques; impose strict hotel development laws – and take the local community on board as equal partners.
Imran Khan could talk about the integrated development project for tourist areas financed by the World Bank, which is indeed ambitious and in-depth. The objective of the project is “to improve the infrastructure conducive to tourism, improve tourism assets and strengthen the management of destinations for the development of sustainable tourism in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa”. But, once fully implemented, will it correct the fundamentals?
Given the trends of the recent past, it seems, the tourist tsunami has dragged us into chaos. Therefore, the wish to develop the pristine and idyllic beaches of unknown Balochistan can only be taken with skepticism.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Lahore.