Mountain killings threaten Pakistan’s tourist economy

By Danial Shah

For Sohail Azhar, the director of a tour company in Pakistan, the May elections brought him hope of possible changes for peace between the government and militants. But those hopes were smashed when foreign tourists were targeted in a recent attack.

On June 23, 2013 a group of gunmen dressed in fake paramilitary uniforms stormed and killed 10 foreign mountaineers and one Pakistani cook at the base camp of Nanga Parbat, one of the world’s highest mountains. The foreign victims of the attack included two Chinese, one Chinese-American, three Ukrainians, two Slovakians, one Lithuanian, and one Nepalese.

In another attack on August 6, three security officials who were investigators of Nanga Parbat killings were shot dead in Chilas and a faction of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a terrorist organization, claimed responsibility.

“I always reassured my potential visitors from Europe that despite the militancy, tourists had never been targeted before in Pakistan so its considered safe”, Sohail Azhar told the Global Times.

Sohail added that it was a complete shock to hear the news and that the TTP had been very successful in sabotaging the tourism industry.

“[Before this] I was getting more enquiries than ever before from foreigners to visit Pakistan this year,” said Sohail, adding that tours in August and September being cancelled or deferred has struck a hard blow to his business.

Nanga Parbat is situated in the Himalayan mountain range in the Diamir district of Gilgit-Baltistan. The area is known as Kohistan, and is known for sectarian violence. In February 2012, a group of armed militants stopped a bus traveling from Rawalpindi to Gilgit, where 18 Shiites were singled out and brutally killed, followed by another murderous assault in August that killed another 25 Shiites. The TTP claimed responsibility for both attacks.

But the killing of foreigners was not religious, but political. TTP spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan said the attack was carried out to retaliate the killing of their front-rank leader, Waliur Rehman, killed in May by a US drone strike.

Targeting tourists is new. Previous attacks have mostly been against diplomats, journalists, or engineers. The killings will highly affect tourism in the area. Pakistan used to be a highly tourist-friendly area before the September 11 attacks, but the rise of anti-US militancy and Afghan spillover inside the country has badly damaged the industry. Nearly 30 major climbing foreign expeditions were cancelled as a result of the June 23 massacres, reported the Express Tribune Pakistan.

“A lot of tourists visit this area in the summer, and our local people work to earn from tourists,” said Syed Mehdi Shah, the chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan on June 25.

The Pakistani government is especially cautious when it comes to the area. Tourists have to obtain a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the capital Islamabad to travel to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), the northwest province bordering Gilgit-Baltistan and Afghanistan.

Pakistan has very close relations with China and is sensitive to any matter that could harm the relationship. Foreign Ministry said that Pakistani officials have reached out to representatives from China to convey their sympathies about the Chinese killed in the attack.

Adding more damage to the tourism industry, the news initially reported the location of the killings indirectly, claiming it took place at the well-known Fairy Meadows site.

Qari Rehmat Ullah who owns a camping site and wooden cottage at Fairy Meadows told the Global Times “ It was a complete shock when I switched on the television and saw the image of my camp site that news agencies took from my website and reported incorrect that the killings happened at Fairy Meadows.”

“More than 150 local tourists cancelled their bookings the week the incident happened,” said Qair Rehmat Ullah.

Qari further added that no local would want to kill a foreigner since every household in the region has income attached to tourism.

Naimat Wakeel, a local tour guide at Fairy Meadows and a student of international relations told the Global Times, “We locals have nothing to do with killings, there is some foreign hand who wants to destabilize the region and kill the local economy”

The Pakistan government is trying to find the culprits with the help of the Diamir Jirga, a tribal assembly of elders is trying to find the victims. So far, 16 attackers have reportedly been identified, linked to the TTP. But the attacks on August 23 show that simply identifying one group is unlikely to weed terror from the region altogether.

Courtesy: Global Times

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