The heinous killing of 16 innocent citizens on the Karakuram Highway (KKH) has underlined the security threats posed to thousands of local travelers and tourists. Although severer in barbarity, the February 28 carnage was not the first of its kind incident in the Kohistan region.
In the past, passengers have been harassed, looted and, in many cases, killed. Not very long ago, a bus belonging to a private company was set on fire by unscrupulous elements, of whom nothing is known. On many occasions unknown people have opened indiscriminate firing on vehicles, injuring and killing passengers.
These incidents have always created panic, distress and chaos in the GB region. After a major incident, the number of local and international tourists decreases significantly, according to past experience. The reduced number of passengers and tourists has adverse impact on the region’s already fragile economy.
In view of the international exposure, Ban Ki Mon’s statement and the comprehensive media coverage being two factors, this particular tragedy is likely to cause far more damages to the region’s economy than any past incident.
The increased sense of insecurity, aided by uncertainty and threats of future protests and violence in GB in the coming months, has created fear among the international tour operators. Already, operators are reporting cancellation of expeditions and tours, due to fear of the unknown.
In this scenario, a marked drop in the number of international and national tourists this year is likely to render thousands of people jobless, pushing the region’s tourism industry to the edge, yet again.
One would expect the federal and GB government to take concrete measures to rebuild the travelers’ confidence, by making elaborate security arrangements. What we are seeing in reality, however, is a disgusting repetition of the traditional laxity and non-seriousness. Instead of enhancing security along the KKH, the GB government has restricted vehicles’ mobility at night. Owners of transport companies have been asked to change the schedules of their vehicles to ensure that no vehicle passes through Kohistan during the night.
This flawed decision seems to be based on the ridiculous assumption that the passengers would be safer during the day. The decision makers need to understand that if security along the KKH is not enhanced the terrorists will strike at the time of their choice, as they did on February 28, 2012.
The Federal and Provincial Governments need to get serious and review the security measures. Ensuring effective security along the strategic international route, KKH, may require the establishment of a dedicated Highway force, on the lines of the Motorway Police, with additional training in counter-terrorism and combat.
Also, the networking, coordination and communication between the existing forces needs to be strengthened, through provision of better communication, transportation and surveillance equipment. Such long-term measures will help improve safety of the passengers on one hand and restore confidence of national and international tourists, on the other.
Taking measures to improve the Rawalpindi – Skardu and Rawalpindi – Gilgit flight service will also help the tourists and domestic travelers. However, it is clear that not many local people will be able to afford the air-fare, which has doubled in a single year.
A robust marketing strategy by the GB Ministry of Culture and Tourism is also a need of the time, to contain and gradually reduce the fear and uncertainty. The marketing strategy shall focus on the post-carnage situation, and clarify to willing travelers that they can visit GB without necessarily traveling through the Kohistan region. The potential visitors need to be told about the air service (if it is improved), the Babusar Valley route and, also, the Shandur Valley passage.
The people of GB need to be told in open terms that all is not unwell, despite of the disaster that fell on all of us. Resilient as we have always been, life shall move on and our region shall return to normalcy, sooner than later.