The closing of the north

Madeeha Syed

It’s rare to see Karimabad so quiet this time of year. In a video posted by popular Instagram account @IncredibleHunza, the cameraperson walks through the uncharacteristically still streets of one of Hunza’s most visited neighbourhoods. To see a popular tourist destination without swathes of people during peak tourism season is the dream. But this is no dream scenario.

Soon one notices the closed shops. The guesthouses without the guests. And clothes hanging idly with no customers at the usually bustling market.

As I replay the 32-second video over and over, I can’t help but remember my walks on these very streets years ago. Sitting in my bedroom in Karachi, working on a piece about Covid-19’s impact on tourism in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), the sound of local Hunzai music plays in my head. I am reminded of how one could hear music from across the valley as if it were being played right in front of one — something to do with the acoustics of the mountains.

I am reminded of tourists losing their breath climbing up the incline on the main streets. And local grandmothers,with babies strapped to their backs with a sling fashioned from a dupatta, doing the same climb almost effortlessly.

Younger people would converge at Cafe de Hunza, a place that guaranteed free ‘working’ internet, real coffee and their signature walnut cake. And then you’d spot the foreigners, and among them ‘old’ mountaineers, who’ve been coming here for years. These foreigners seemed more at home in GB than you and clearly knew their way around this region like the back of their hand.

“After 9/11, we survived for 18 years. Those were difficult times,” says mountaineer Nazir Sabir. At that time, most of the tourists GB catered to were foreign and only a handful were domestic ones. After 9/11 they stopped coming. Until recently.

Finally, you’d see what the locals refer to as sasta tourists. They would come in hordes, piled inside large buses. And like sardines in a can, anywhere between five to 10 of them would cram into one room for the night. These tourists had been offered a trip to the mountains for pennies, the low price made possible by operators cutting corners everywhere. Locals would complain about these tourists to anyone who would listen, because they don’t contribute much to the economy and have a reputation for littering.

One wonders if some locals, especially daily wagers, whose earnings depend on tourism, would gladly welcome even these sasta tourists now.

“There have been dips in tourism in the past,” says Mirza Ali who runs a trekking and mountaineering group called Karakorum Expeditions. “But I’ve never experienced anything like this.” Even when there was flooding in Upper Hunza and Gojal in 2018 due to a glacial burst, and it was difficult to get in and out of the region, things were not so bad because that was at the very start of the tourism season. “They didn’t just stop coming,” Ali tells Eos.

Given these circumstances, one might expect that locals in GB would have welcomed the government’s decision to reopen the tourism industry. But the truth is a little more complicated.

In early June, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced the reopening of the tourism industry. He pointed out that this was the peak season for tourism and added that many livelihoods are entirely dependent on travel. A continued lockdown would only contribute to these individuals’ financial woes.

He wasn’t wrong. The tourism industry, much like practically every other industry, has been hit hard by the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. But, ironically, soon after the prime minister presented the reopening of tourism as a solution, the government’s own Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) announced the closure of all its motels in the northern areas. Employees of PTDC were also let go.

“Due to continuous and irreparable financial losses [and] having no other resources [during] the current Covid-19 pandemic, the federal government and PTDC Board of Directors unanimously resolved to close down the operations of the company,” the PTDC’s notification said.

Sabir is also afraid of an outbreak on a bigger scale. “I don’t think [the government] should even think about opening GB this year or even the next year,” he says. “I know dozens of people, both in Hunza and in Islamabad, who are Covid-19 positive, but they are not telling anyone because they are terrified.”

In GB, the pandemic and its resulting lockdowns couldn’t have come at a worse time for those dependent on seasonal work to see them through the rest of the year.

“I have been ruined!” says Shakir Sultan Hunzai, who is a small tourism operator from Hunza. When I first met him a few years ago, he had been working as a driver and guide for his cousin’s company based out of Karimabad. Taking advantage of Pakistan’s domestic tourism boom, he decided to try his luck and open up his own independent travel agency, Travel Sultans, which provided a one-stop solution to tourists frequenting the area.

But with more than half the season gone, his agency hasn’t been able to generate any income and the banks are calling.

“There are so many people in my position,” he says over the phone, his voice cracking from stress. “We’ve taken out loans and they’re coming after us.”

Hunzai had met representatives from the bank the very morning he spoke to me. “I’m working on a very small level,” he says. “I had to go for microfinancing and the interest on that is around 20 percent — that’s 40,000 rupees per month on top of other household expenses.” Hunzai says he’s been “sitting around, waiting for a miracle.”

When the lockdown was announced around late March, Hunzai understood that it was the necessary thing to do. At the time, no one from his circle believed it would last for more than a month. Over three months later, they’re losing hope and are running out of time.

“Even if they open the season by the end of July, we’re only left with August and half of September to make enough money to last us a year,” says Hunzai. But even that seems increasingly unlikely.

Mirroring Hunzai’s opinions, many disagreed with Prime Minister Imran Khan’s decision. One of the most prominent of these voices was GB’s then-Chief Minister Hafiz Hafeezur Rehman.

With Pakistan’s coronavirus cases showing no signs of declining, GB’s ex-chief minister Rehman (who held office till 23 June) had resisted reopening tourism. “I won’t allow this on my watch,” he had told online publication The Third Pole. “Our health system is just not good enough to take the load if things go out of control.” Non-residents are still not allowed to enter the region, although some “influential” individuals have reportedly managed to make their way there anyway.

As most tourism-dependent nations are reconsidering their dependence on foreign tourists, Pakistan finds itself in a unique position. Over 71 percent of all tourism here is domestic. While domestic tourism has been rising slowly since 2010, in the past four to five years, there has been an unprecedented boom.

At the time of writing this article, GB has 1,587 confirmed coronavirus cases, just a small percentage of Pakistan’s 237,489 cases (July 8, 2020).

Even those struggling financially recognise the dangers of reopening the region for tourists at this time. For Travel Sultan’s Hunzai, the pandemic has hit close to home. One of his family members recently died from the virus. “Around 16 members of my family, from the same household, were infected and have recovered,” he tells Eos.

Nonetheless, on June 23, the GB government announced intentions of starting ‘controlled tourism’ in the area. Strict Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) will need to be followed, it was said. The next day, on June 24, the GB assembly was dissolved as their tenure had finished.

A caretaker government is currently in place and is apparently still working on introducing SOPs.

But even when the SOPs are introduced, there is no guarantee that tourists will return. And even if they do, not everyone will benefit from the return of local tourists. Most of Ali’s expeditions, for example, are geared towards a foreign clientele. “All of our groups, except for those for the autumn season, have cancelled their tours,” he tells Eos. “They’re not letting Pakistanis enter other countries, since we are very good at spreading the coronavirus,” he says. “So it depends on how many people [even] want to come here.”


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