Development just around the corner

By Faheem Baig

Behold! There comes our tourism back again. What then is going to happen in the event of a man-made or natural disaster? Are we going to be left helpless and with our economy shattered like it did in 2001? What will be the cultural, social and environmental costs of the tourist influx? How can we convert the explosion of tourism into sustainable rural development? What is the state of technology and what will it be in the future? These are just the questions which are explored in the following paragraphs. Our discussion will be supplemented by an interview-based research the author conducted in the Hunza Valley.

Due to increased mobility and globalization, the tourist gaze has fixed itself on rural areas formerly considered inaccessible or remote. For the tourist of today, rural areas provide the ideal atmosphere. The recent flux of tourists into Gilgit-Baltistan has created several conceptual problems for understanding development. Hunza is probably the greatest recepient of the tourist flow. Wealth is certainly flowing in and economic growth is there to be witnessed. However, the unique cultural, social and environmental conditions which attract the tourist to Hunza are under threat in the face of this overwhelming influx of tourists and of wealth.

For now, Hunza still is and may remain so for the near future, a predominantly rural space. What will the consequences of the economic transformation and interaction with tourists be for the rural space (including social and cultural dimensions) of Hunza? The role of technology for society in general and for development in particular also goes hand in hand with tourism as a platform for connection with the rest of the world. Moreover, technology also is significant for development, although, it has not been discussed very often with regard to rural development.

Rural development is one of the cornerstones of the development narrative. Recent literature on rural development highlights the role of grassroots movements and emphasizes minimal external interventions formulating what can be called a self-help or self-sufficient model.

However, the reach of globalization may seem to pose serious questions about such a model. Technological advancement and tourism activities predicate and reinforce constant contact between the local rural area and the market. Exposure to the market itself and cultural changes throughout the world have been proved to have delinked people from land and from their traditional occupations. However, does this mean that rural areas should be completely exposed to the market and urbanized? How can development practice take benefit of the tourist influx and the improving technology to create sustainable models for rural development?

Therefore, the author gathered primary data through a series of interviews from a total of 35 individuals involved directly with tourism activities. The participants included 1) Managers of heritage sites, hotels and restaurants 2) Tour operators based in Hunza 3) Representatives of Local Support Organizations working for development at the local level 4) Officials of NGO’s which work on tourism and technology as tools for development 5) Government Officials working in departments relevant to tourism. In addition the author himself had the privelege of being an insider to both the society of Hunza and to the development sector.

The data provided significant  findings about the tourist gaze, impact of tourism industry on the society of Hunza, role of technology and the possible strategies to channel or limit tourism and technology for sustainable rural development of Hunza.

Urbanization of spaces in Hunza is not only speadily underway but also desirable for most participants interviewed. This is due to the symptomatic association of urbanization with facilities including schools, sanitation, hospitals and roads etc. Main centers experiencing urbanization are Aliabad, Karimabad, Haiderabad, Nasirabad and Gulmit. These places are recieving large number of tourists and that has resulted in infrastructural and cultural transformation. However, the authenticity of the landscape and cultural forms is also diminishing due to these changes. Moreover, the economy of Hunza has shifted from agricultural activities towards tourist activities which has meant that cultivable land is utilized for tourism related infrastructure. Also, the whole economy of Hunza has become dependent on aliens.

The need for manning the tourism industry with suitable human resource is evr increasing. It is not only a need but an opportunity to train the locals in skills related not only to tourism bu to the service industry in general. A master plan to engage youth with activities related to tourism can become the guide to tap into the full potential of tourism for development. Moreover, it also is an opportunity to equipp the youth with soft skills related to technology to create a skilled work force capable of sustaining future development.

As one participant remarked: “…..God has gifted us with natural resources and we have to prepare human skills to utilize the resources for our betterment.”

Despite, a lot of development interventions, human development benefits as well as wealth has not been distributed equitably throughout the Hunza Valley. In relation to tourism and technology, the greatest earnings are pocketed by hotel owners, cellular companies and SCO. This earning is largely kept out of the local market. Therefore, the local administration needs to categorize and regulate the tourist and technological companies. As one local participant of this research remarked.

“…..Hamy tourists k any say koef aida nae, Hotel waly kamaty hai or wahi sehrun mai jaky kharch karty hai. (We have no benefits from tourists; hotel owners earn their money and spend it in cities)”.

The local people who participated in this research displayed that they understood and were aware of the changes occurring due to explosion of the tourist sector. They realize that the new changes and ‘modernization’ cannot be avoided but they also fear for the losses to their culture and environment. They hope they could internalize ‘modernization’ by training themselves in skills. They want the whole community to be aware of the potential benefits as well as the uncertainties of the future related to tourism and technology. In their own understanding the indicators of sustainable rural development would be establishment of schools and hospitals, provision of electricity, construction of paved roads and training of the youth in technical skills.

Although, Hunza has been touted as a development miracle with high literacy and per capita income, the area lacks infrastructure and basic civic services. The cashing in of the tourism sector would have to be carried out through the involvement of the local community in policy-making. Involvement of local people directly, without the arbitration of NGO’s is preferable. The potential of technological advancements for tourism and rural development in general needs to be assessed because technological upgradation is definite to occur. Therefore, rural development policy needs to be prepared for it and ready to reap its benefits. Preparation is also necessary in context of the foreseeable unnecessary urbanization and cultural losses.

The contributing is practicing and teaching development studies. Email: Drfaheem2017@hotmail.com

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