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Call to bring tourists back to Swat valley

With administrative responsibility now back in civilian hands, the revival of the industry is critical for the economic recovery of the region.

MINGORA, PAKISTAN // Pakistani authorities are coming under fire but, for a change, not from Taliban militants. Hoteliers in the embattled north-west of the country are upset because their businesses have been caught in the crossfire of fighting between security forces and insurgents there.

The loudest complaints are emanating from Swat, a scenic valley in the north-west that was briefly controlled by the Taliban a year ago under a peace agreement with the government, and then pacified by the army only after a destructive conflict that ended in July. A favourite with honeymooners and a popular summer holiday destination for other domestic tourists, Swat was arguably Pakistan's busiest mountain resort until the militant uprising in 2007.

Tourism had until then supported 850 hotels and restaurants that employed about 15,000 residents and generated peripheral business for a further 40,000 - a big factor in a region of about 1.5 million people. With the militants routed and administrative responsibility for Swat now back in civilian hands, the revival of the tourism industry is critical for the economic recovery of the embattled region, relief workers said.

"All residents of Swat's mountainous areas are economically dependent on tourism, whether for jobs, or revenue from retail stores, handicraft sales or hotel businesses," said Mian Mohib Jan, the secretary of the Pakistan Red Crescent Society, a non-governmental organisation. However, there has been little, if any, attempt by federal or provincial tourism authorities to market Swat to leisure-starved Pakistanis.

Sarhad Tourism, the leisure-marketing organisation of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) government, has appeared detached from the crisis that has destroyed the tourism industry not only in Swat, but other once-popular destinations including Peshawar, the provincial capital, and the Chitral Valley, home to a tribe that claims descent from the army of Alexander the Great, who conquered the area in the 4th century BC.

The organisation had marked last summer's high season with a single cultural festival, staged at a motorway services station on the banks of the Indus River, where it forms the border between the NWFP and central Punjab province. But with the insurgency then at its peak, Sarhad Tourism officials apparently decided the event would be more of a success if tourists were able to enjoy Frontier cuisine, music and dance in safety, so they staged the festival on the Punjab side of the river.

Security is still a serious issue in Peshawar, the ancient bazaars which have become favourite targets for suicide bombers, but with peace having returned to Swat, and Chitral largely isolated from the troubles and directly accessible by air, Sarhad Tourism has done little to push its products. Its only endeavour this year has been to stage a photography competition in January of for pictures of NWFP landscapes and cultural icons. Even that was not held in the NWFP, but in Islamabad.

Such campaigns have earned Sarhad the anger of conflict-affected hoteliers who have derived no benefit. "It is an organisation only in name because its officials are preoccupied with themselves," said Wakil Khan Kanju, the general secretary of the All Swat Hotels Association. "If the government were to co-operate with us to the extent of running publicity campaigns in print and electronic media, we could get across the message that there is nothing here to fear any more and that people should come without hesitation."

The criticism is an indictment for Syed Aqil Shah, the provincial minister for tourism and culture, and himself the proprietor of the Green's Hotel, probably the best in Peshawar since the premium Pearl Continental was put out of business by a suicide bomber last year. Mr Shah has instead focused his efforts on the development of tourist facilities in the Kaghan Valley, an area that competes with Swat in terms of picturesque destinations, infrastructure and distance from Islamabad, about 150km to the south-east, and has the added advantage of being unaffected by terrorism.

Left to their own devices, the Swat hoteliers have started a modest marketing campaign, announcing they were back in business by staging in January a promotion offering free rooms at properties in the scenic north of the valley to tourists adventurous enough to take them up. But managers at the region's only premium international hotel, the Serena Hotel in Saidu Sharif, said it was unrealistic to expect the perceptions of the Pakistani tourist public to change quickly.

"We don't expect domestic tourism to recover immediately. It will take at least three to four years to reach that point," said Shirinzada Badar, the manager of the property as it is renovated before its scheduled reopening in March. "Until then, we are expecting only low-yield niche trade from local NGOs involved in the relief and reconstruction work," Underlining his point was a hole in the back wall of the Serena, created in April not by the Taliban, who had left the property alone, but to allow a battalion of Pakistani special services troops to sneak in and set up camp in preparation for the launch of the counteroffensive that followed soon afterwards.

thussain@thenational.ae

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