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Pakistani air force personnel carry coffins of foreign tourists as they are unloaded at Chaklala airbase in Rawalpindi last month. AFP
Pakistani air force personnel carry coffins of foreign tourists as they are unloaded at Chaklala airbase in Rawalpindi last month. AFP

Pakistan has mountain to climb over tourism after Taliban attack

Known as a haven for foreign mountaineers, Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan region is home to some of the world's highest mountain ranges. But terrorism keeps visitors away and robs locals of a livelihood.

Rising incidents of terrorism in Pakistan have hit the country's economy hard, particularly the tourism sector.

The sites of attractions in the country's north-west to south-west look deserted because the foreign tourists stay away owing to security concerns. The country's northern areas, or Gilgit-Baltistan region, have been relatively safe for foreign tourists, but the brutal killings of overseas visitors on June 23 dampened enthusiasm of foreign trekking expeditions and international tourism in Gilgit-Baltistan bordering China.

Pakistani Taliban dressed in police uniforms brutally killed 10 foreign tourists last month in a terrorist attack at a base camp at Nanga Parbat, the ninth-highest mountain in the world, in Gilgit-Baltistan. The slain foreign climbers were from Ukraine, China, Slovakia, Lithuania, Nepal and the United States. The incident is likely to damage the country's struggling tourism industry, as it raised security concerns among foreign tourists, who visit the Gilgit-Baltistan region in large numbers during the summer.

Once known as a haven for foreign mountaineers, the region is home to some of the world's highest mountain ranges including Karakuram and the western Himalyas. Gilgit and Skardu are the two main hubs for all mountaineering expeditions in the region with more than 50 peaks above 7,000 metres including K2, the second-highest mountain in the world. The flight to the region is considered one of the most scenic in the world as the route passes over Nanga Parbat and the mountain's peak is above the aircraft cruising altitude.

The incident last month was an act of terrorism against tourism, which is a major source of income for Gilgit-Baltistan. The failure of the security forces has aggravated the concerns of foreign tourists, who are wary anyway while visiting the strife-torn country.

Islamic extremism and militancy has grown at an alarming level since the country emerged as a US frontline ally in the global war on terror in 2001. Before the terrorist attacks on the US in September 2001, more than 20,000 foreign tourists visited Gilgit-Baltistan each year. But the number has since fallen to about 5,000, according to the Pakistan association of tour operators.

Strategically located, Gilgit-Baltistan borders the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan to the north-west, China's autonomous region of Xinjiang Uygur to the north-east, the Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir to the south and south-east, the Pakistani-controlled Jammu and Kashmir to the south and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to the west.

China regards Gilgit Baltistan as a strategic area for future trade and energy supply projects from energy-rich central Asia and considers Gilgit a gateway to central Asia. Karakoram Highway, a vital border trade link, connects China's Xinjiang region with Gilgit-Baltistan. Chinese firms are involved in many infrastructure and hydropower projects in the area. China and Pakistan also plan to link the Karakoram Highway to the Gwadar Port in south-western Balochistan province by rail. Security is the bigger issue in any plan to set up a transport and trade corridor by establishing new air, road and rail links, which are essential for tourism in the country. The June 23 attack poses a fresh challenge to the security of Chinese stakes in the region.

The country's south-west is beset with a separatist insurgency, while the north-west is hit by an insurgency led by Taliban militants. The tourism sites in the country's north-western Khyber Pakhtunkwa province have essentially become havens for terrorists.

For instance, Swat valley, the former stronghold of the Pakistan Taliban, was once a draw for foreign tourists for its natural beauty. Before 2007, about half a million tourists visited Swat every year. The Pakistan army launched a military offensive in 2009 to evacuate Swat because of the Taliban militants, who had destroyed the local tourism industry. Presently, Swat is struggling hard to restore its glory and re-secure its place in the tourism industry.

Insurgency-hit Balochistan attracted foreign tourists and research scientists for its archaeological and palaeontological importance. The first dinosaur fossils were discovered in the Barkhan district of the south-western province. The world's largest land mammal used to live, 24 million years ago, in Balochistan and is named "Baluchitherium". Pakistan is now among the few countries of the world with relatively plentiful dinosaur fossils.

Ziarat, a hill station in Balochistan, attracts tourists thanks to its breathtaking scenery, healthy environment, juniper forests and historical artefacts. Ziarat residency is where Quaid E Azam Muhammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, spent his last days.

But on June 15 Baloch separatists attacked the residency building in Ziarat with hand grenades and destroyed the historic monument. The attack dealt a severe blow to the local tourism industry.

Although there are many issues including lack of infrastructure, organisation and management, hitting the country's tourism sector, security remains the biggest issue, affecting every effort to develop this sector.

Pakistan has suspended expeditions on Nanga Parbat and evacuated foreign climbers because of the growing security threat following the June 23 attack.

The killing of foreign tourists dealt a major blow to attracting foreign mountaineering expeditions in Gilgit-Baltistan, which has so far been providing the last vestige of international tourism in the country.

 

Syed Fazl E Haider is a development analyst in Pakistan. He is the author of books including The Economic Development of Balochistan.

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