Hunza, a valley in waiting by invitation only
“Let’s try to create a new habit of slow travel; let’s forfeit the social media selfies and work on creating true links of friendship, mutual aid, trust, and discovery when we are guests in other people’s communities and homes.”- Heather Marsh
According to UNWTO the minimum per capita income for any tourist to become an international traveler is USD 50,000. By any and every standard, the average Pakistani per capita income is way too low to afford foreign travel. It is also true that Pakistan does not have any experiential tourism. We live in a country with domestic tourism. Hot temperatures in Punjab and Sindh force all middle and lower-middle-class Pakistani’s to run away from hotter places like Sialkot, Faisalabad, Lahore towards the mountains of Hazara, Naran, Gilgit & Baltistan.
While I am based in Islamabad for a living, my heart will always be back in the mountains. I love traveling everywhere but my best travel is back towards home. Every year I go back home to Gilgit and Hunza. I drive about 16 hours in my old Landcruiser which makes it possible for me to go back home every year with my gear. A side effect of parenthood is adopting a convention of naming our cars, and my kids choose to call this Landcruiser ‘MarcoPolo’.We travel through Hazara, Kohistan and many more land sites with MarcoPoloand enjoy all the scenic waterfalls, ravines, valleys, and mountains the journey has to offer.
Over the years, we made certain photo points where we take family snaps with regular intervals. Some of our favorite stops for this routine are Babusar top, where we enjoy a few snaps, Bunji where three mountains meet, Juglot for a cup of tea, and then Gilgit, where our home rests. From our pictures I see my kids grow over time with the same view. I love telling my kids stories and folklore about the Indus, old civilizations, cultures, and mountains. There is some part of me that never leaves these places that we visit, and every single time we come back, I feel a burst of euphoria when being reunited with it.
MarcoPolo next to a delivery van taking a refreshing bathvia stream
Emptiness all the way
This year however our road stories revolved around COVID 19, closed hotels, and the absence of tourists on the Karakorum highway. This time our family trip was one littered with empty roads, deserted roadside tea stalls, and soulless resorts. COVID 19has affected all sectors, but the tourism sector has suffered the hardest hit globally. In Pakistan, COVID 19 has struck Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and Gilgit Baltistan with its utmost severity.
Tour operators are calling COVID 19 pandemic a 9/11 of its own variety. People recollect how their businesses and livelihoods were affected due to 9/11 when North American and European countries issued strict travel advisories. Hamid Ullah Khan, a seasoned travel operator based in Hunza is lamenting the lost business. The social ripple effects may be more tragic than the economic nosedive. While in developed countries Governments are developing stimulus packages for national relief. In Pakistan, the situation is far from ideal. Maybe the solutions for large tourism companies that span globally are different from small scale micro operators likeSafeenawho a young female entrepreneur is supporting her younger siblings while running a roadside café in Altit-Hunza.
Empty Rakaposhi Point. A favorite place of tourists in the lap of Rakaposhi Mountain
Over the years, government investments in tourism are already crowded out due to insufficient national attention given to developing tourism infrastructure. PTDC (A state-owned government tourism entity) is in a state of limbo –existing as an institution that has already been drafted on the privatization list 13 years ago. It is very difficult to ascertain how the Federal and Provincial Governments will react to support this human crisis.
My conversation with Raziq, a shopkeeper at Rakaposhi point-Nagar District, was filled with gloom. He is not expecting any tourists this year. Nearly all hotels and restaurants are closed. My family and I were stopped by Police and Army personnel about 10 times between Islamabad and Thakot, a stretch of about 160 kilometers. When we reached Chilas, we were taken away to be tested for temperature monitoring- a leap of faith type of corona test.
The authorities went as far as making sure that we were not tourists. Our ID cards were checked and then could travel up to Gilgit. In my inquiry we were told that the Government has banned all foreign and domestic travel to this place. If they do come across any wandering tourist, who must have traveled for about 15 hours to get there, are sent straight back.
Big business tourism versus small time living
From a tourist perspective, travel is a luxury-An an affordable luxury that can be postponed. Unfortunately for those who earn through tourism, for them, it is a matter of life and death. Tourism businesses in places like Hunzavalley remain small, and family-owned microenterprises. Employment and liquidity are the two main issues for small scale hospitality operators. These people do not have any foundational investment robust enough to survive a season without tourism. It is already a seasonal business on this side of the world.
The concept of sustainability is too romantic, upscale, and far from reach for these small hoteliers. From the human resources point of view, tourism is labor-intensive, and this time at least 70% of Hunza's economy will be affected. To give a perspective, Karimabad is a very small town in Hunza. It has around 5000 rooms for accommodation ranging from basic to luxury level. The town of Karimabad employs around 10,000 people in the tourism value chain. Hunza employs people from adjoining districts including Ghizer and Chitral. Mahboob, a young entrepreneur who operates camping sites and tourist information centers in Hunza and is famous for his yak motorcycle parked outside his office is worried about the future of his team.
A local storyteller waiting for tourists in Hunza
While the world plans to get stimulus packages and government support. For places like Hunza, the crisis is not of tomorrow but of today. The people of Hunza valley are waiting for tourists. This time all the private operators, daily wagers, women, and youth are looking towards the Government, Donors and large-scale private entities for an emergency handholding as most of the people in the absence of tourism are two months away from hunger.
Moin Uddin is an occasional writer. He is based in Islamabad and tweets @moinhunzai
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