BY MOEEDUR REHMAN
SKARDU: Wider roads, an improved air service and better security have resulted in a tourism bonanza for Gilgit-Baltistan this year. Over half a million tourists have visited the northern areas of Pakistan.
Tourists have taken any and every possible means of transportation to get to the lush green valleys with raging rivers and snow-capped peaks. Thousands of visitors flocked to some of the most popular destinations including Gilgit, Skardu, Hunza, Nagar, Ghanche, Astore, Diamer and Ghizer.
Tourism in the region plummeted after a number of violent incidents took place around Gilgit and the surrounding valleys.
While Skardu is usually popular among foreign mountaineers, this year it was visited by a number of domestic tourists as well.
According to government figures shared with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif when he inaugurated Attabad Lake Tunnel in September, as many as 600,000 tourists have visited G-B past summer.
Lack of preparation
However, the local hospitality industry was caught unaware by the large influx of tourists. Most hotel rooms had already been reserved and many tourists in Skardu were seen camping out in tents.
The stream of local and foreign holiday-goers caused prices for hotel rooms and food to soar despite efforts by the local administration to stabilise rates.
In Deosai, there were no lodgings and visitors had no option but to camp in the open.
Zahid Hussain, a tour guide, said most tourists preferred to set up tents near Bara Pani.
A safer world
Following the attack on foreign mountaineers at a base camp of Nanga Parbat in 2013, the government heightened security throughout the region. This has made G-B safer.
Sara Khan, a young biker from Lahore, fearlessly rode through the valley unperturbed. According to Sara, she faced no security-related problems in the region. Everywhere she went, Sara encountered people who were friendly and offered to help her whenever she needed it. However, Sara said the government ought to do more to improve the condition of roads so that more people can visit the region.
Tourism in G-B has also been bolstered through the Airbus A-320 flights to Skardu by Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) which has helped reduce weather-related cancellations.
According to statistics submitted by PIA and the Civil Aviation Authority in an appellate court in G-B, as many as 52,000 people flew in and out of the region. This accounts for around 10% of all visitors to the area. Of these passengers, 30,000 travelled to Skardu while 22,000 to Gilgit.
The high demand has compelled PIA to increase the number of flights to the region this week from three to four.
A senior official of the national carrier, who visited Skardu airport earlier this year, said they are planning to begin operations of A-320 flights to the valley every day.
Even private airlines are considering expanding their routes. However, those plans will need to be implemented within the available resource constraints.
“The airport in Skardu resembles an old army barrack and does not have appropriate facilities to deal with passengers,” the PIA official said. “It needs to be upgraded.”
The PIA official said the biggest hurdles they have faced in increasing the number of flights involve the absence of ground operations facilities. It does not help that last-minute cancellations occur frequently due to the airport’s inability to operate under adverse weather conditions.
But change is already in motion. The CAA administration has decided to renovate work at Skardu airport.
Syed Kosar Naqvi, a journalist, said these renovations are an encouraging sign.
“But a lot more needs to be done to cater to the expected demand,” he added.
Earlier this year, dozens of mountaineers were disappointed when they could not climb K2 and Broad Peak owing to the uncharacteristically warm weather.
Climbers from the US, Poland, Switzerland and a group of mountaineers from Pakistan found it difficult to scale the peaks.
But some of these climbers – including the likes of Mike Horn from Switzerland – have already announced plans to return this winter.
Officials believe by improving communication infrastructure and upgrading facilities, more tourists are likely to visit the region next year.
Already, over 90% tourists in G-B arrived by road over the majestic Karakoram Highway (KKH).
The prime minister has directed the widening of roads between Gilgit and Skardu in addition to upgrading airports in the two cities on an immediate basis. -- The Express Tribune