Focusing on Ecotourism in Gilgit-Baltistan

Syed Shams Uddin

Ecotourism or nature tourism is defined as “travelling to relatively undisturbed or uncontrolled natural areas with specific objectives of studying, admiring, and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants, as well as any existing cultural manifestations (both past and present) found in these areas” (Ceballos-Lascurain 1988).

Ecotourism policy needs be carefully crafted and developed in order that economic benefits could be made attainable without harming the fragile ecosystems and not blatantly using it as a mere marketing jargon. If not properly designed, managed and monitored, it may assume the form of mass tourism resulting in unforeseen, highly negative and unintended results in environmental context. Generally speaking, tourism involves travelling to a natural and less-developed area for adventure and to experience varying socio-cultural and environmental settings; hence, it embraces strong elements of “ecotourism” or “nature tourism”. Pakistan, the custodian of ancient civilizations like Taxila and Mohenjodaro, offers much in the arena of tourism primarily for its being a land where all the seasons of the year can be experienced at one and the same time – with the majestic snow-clad, sky-scrapping mountains in the north to the temperate zones in the south. Once visiting this land, tourists are bound to be overwhelmed by the mesmerizing vistas of spectacular natural beauty all across – from north to the south albeit there is growing need to develop tourism with particular attention to conservation of natural and cultural heritage besides putting in place basic infrastructural facilities at all destination. In Gilgit-Baltistan  – the veritable cynosure of tourism, there is dearth of the facilities which need be made available as the enormous influx of domestic tourists over the preceding three consecutive years underlined. The number of domestic tourists this year along was put at about one million which comparatively viewed, raises the expectations of soaring unimaginably the following year, soon and so forth. Vehicular traffic on the KKH too increased unimaginably. However, there has been no significant increase in the number of foreign tourists as yet.

However, it is a happy augury that ‘Soni Geleet USA’ – a representative body of Gilgit-Baltistan diasporas – an association founded by Nasim Gilgiti living in the Unites States – very recently launched a campaign to highlight the significance of Gilgit-Baltistan in terms of tourism in juxtaposition to the region’s returning to its erstwhile sedateness and serenity propitiously instrumental in giving a boost to tourism. Its founder Nasim Gilgiti during the course of his live interview to VOA Urdu the other day expressed the resolve to hold a conference on development of tourism in Gilgit-Baltistan in New York this month to be followed by numerous others in other cities. The programme was also joined by the legendary climber Nazir Sabir via phone from Pakistan. As a prelude to the discussion, the latter laid emphasis on simplifying the visa regime, facilitating the foreign tourists on arrival in Pakistan in an unhindered manner. Hopefully such moves could be conducive to boost tourism and fetch fruitful rsults insofar as foreigners are concerned. Viewed domestically, the prospective influx of tourists into this region during the upcoming years could be unimaginably large. This is for the simple reason that the remarkable scenic beauty of this region keeps attracting the tourists of all hues to feasts their eyes on the bewitching pristine settings and abundant natural beauty of Gilgit-Baltistan. This calls for promotion of ecotourism in its truest perspective. It has to be said that the region boasts of being the repository for five of the world’s 13 highest peaks. No other country can be boastful of a setting where four great mountain ranges – the Karakoram, the Himalaya, Pamir and the Hindukush, all converge, surge and merge to form a such a spectacular conglomeration of altitudes. These mountains it may be mentioned, served as vast storehouses or the reservoirs of valuable resources such as water, energy and biodiversity, as well as key centres of culture and recreation.

An appreciation and understanding of these unique treasures is still clearly lacking insofar as putting in place compatible infrastructural facilities attuned to eco-friendly parameters guidelines are concerned. On its part, the government has come to realize the growing needs of a full-fledged hotel sector, conserving the biological diversity, and efforts remain afoot for strengthening local capacities for conservation and supporting broad-based advocacy efforts. But nevertheless, more concerted or to put it, integrated efforts are required to achieve the goals of sustainable tourism and to mitigate its negative impacts on the environment as is generally felt. There is greater need to embark on and gearing up collaborative efforts connected with preservation of the fragile mountain ecosystem in order to mitigate threats being posed to the environment, biological diversity in all the three mountain ranges -the Himalayas, Hindukush and Karakoram. The respective authorities have reportedly been launching appeals to the tourists to support the efforts for conserving the rugged beauty of mountains, to respect the local culture and traditions, minimize disturbance to wildlife and desist from littering, saving the dwindling natural forest and other resources, but nevertheless, much more is required to be done in this context in simultaneous with broadening the base of the hotel sector to meet the growing needs.

Derivable from the phrases coined by reporters, visitors and observers, tourism to some is metaphorically a goose that lays golden eggs, but it can also foul its own nest. This obviously alludes to allowing tourism to thrive in a careless or unscientific manner leading to environmentally horrendous results. In an era where climate change has created risks for people around the globe generally while affecting people living in the mountainous areas on the planet, there is greater need now than ever before to come grips with the grave situations facing humankind. It becomes imperative to make concerted efforts to protect the mountains and educate and enable the respective mountain communities to ward off the horrific effect of climate change in seeing that if the appalling state persists unaddressed, the snow-clad mountains as is feared by environmentalists would gradually turn into black. Gilgit-Baltistan, home to most of the world’s tallest peaks, requires additional efforts to protect, promote and preserve the sanctity and glory of the mountains which are vulnerable to negative impacts of deteriorating weather.

Climate change it may be said has created risks for the people who live in the mountains, as well as the ecosystem, cultural heritage and biodiversity with the adverse impacts on the overall mountain economy. Snowline is horrifically receding each year with the weather patterns assuming drastic changes being witnessed add risks and vulnerability not only for mountain climbers, summiteers but to the indigenous people as well. Dilating upon these phenomena, it may be mentioned Gilgit-baltistan – a famous destination for mountaineers, rock climbers, paragliders and adventure-seekers. The region quite unexaggeratedly gets singled out as a land of rich cultural heritage blessed with natural beauty. Tourism sans adequate infrastructural facilities in place may result into the accumulation of plastics, bottles, tin foils, cans and so on along the trekking routes detrimental to the ecosystems. Home to the world’s highest mountains and glacier, lakes and breathtaking valleys, the needs to be grapple with the challenges of climate change by establishing meaningful cooperation to mitigate its impacts and preserve natural heritages. Gilgit-Baltistan has produced a great number of climbers of world fame like Nazir Sabir, Ashraf Aman and of late, Samina Baig Pakistan is proud of. There is a host of others like Hasan Sadpara, Mirza Hussain who made a niche for themselves in the arena of adventure tourism .

Again reverting to the climate change phenomena, it is profitable to refer to a risk assessment published about decade and a half ago saying there could be a one in 20 of a dramatic rise in the world sea level over the next century due to global warming. The survey – by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and Norwegian environmental safety organization, Det Norske Veritas – said here was five per cent chance of the gian West Antarctic Ice Sheet disintegrating due to climate change and raising sea levels by one metre (yard) in the next 100 years. “You have to balance the likelihood against the severity of the impacts, and in this case, even a five percent chance of this happening is really damn serious,” said scientist David Vaughan of BAS responsible for British scientific research in Antarctica. Scientists have already predicted a rise in sea levels of 50cm over the next century due to a combination of climate change and increased extraction of ground water, even with no contribution from melting Antarctic ice. “So we might be looking at something like one and a half metres in the next century,” Vaughan said.

Vaughan said the possible breakup of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet which accounts for 13 per cent of cie on the frozen continent had nothing to do with the impact of human industrial activity on the climate, but was part of a far older process. But he said major world polluters could not walk away from the problem. “The potential impacts of a major change in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet are severe – sea level rise will be fantastically expensive for developed nations with coastal cities and dire for poor populations in kow-lying coastal areas,” Vaughan said. Not only would there be flooding on a potentially vast scale but changes in ocean currents could have  untold consequences on weather patterns, he added. Previous calculations have said  low-lying countries such as Bangladesh could lose 17 per cent of its land area and as much as half of its land area if sea levels rose by one metre, and small island nations could be completely swamped.

According to an article titled ‘Case for saving nature’ by Juliette Jowit published in the Guardian, London about a decade ago: ‘The economic case for global action to stop the destruction of the natural world is even more powerful than the argument for tackling climate change, a report for the United Nations will declare later this year (2010). The Stern Report on climate change which was prepared for the UK Treasury and published in 2006, famously stated that the cost of limiting climate change would be about one to two per cent of annual global wealth, but the longer term economic benefits would be five-20 times that figure. The UN’s biodiversity report – dubbed the Stern for Nature – is expected to say that the value of saving “natural goods and services”, such as pollination, medicines, fertile soils, clean air and water, will be even higher, between 10 and 100 times the cost of saving th habitats and species that provide them. The report will advocate massive changes to the way the global economy is run so that its factors in the value of the natural world. The measures it will recommend include:

  • Paying communities to conserve nature rather than deplete it
  • Giving strict limits to companies on what they can take from the environment and fining or taxing more to limit over-exploitation
  • Asking businesses and national governments to publish accounts for their use of natural and human capital alongside their financial results
  • Reforming subsidies worth more than $1tr a year for industries such as agriculture, fisheries, energy and transport

The potential economic benefits of protecting biodiversity are huge. Setting up and running a comprehensive network of protected areas would cost $45bn a year.

“We need a sea-change in human thinking and attitudes towards nature” said the report’s author, the economist Pavan Sukhdev, a former senior banker with Deutsche Bank and a special advisor to the UN environment programme. He called for nature to be seen “not as something to be vanished, conquered, but rather something to be cherished and lived within”. The report’s authors go further with their warning on biodiversity, by saying if the goods and services provided by the natural world are not valued and factored into the global economic system, the environment will become more fragile.

The writer is a Gilgit-based freelance contributor, blogger. He tweets @SayyidShams

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