Sat. Oct 31st, 2020

Gilgit Baltistan Tourism: New Realities, Challenges and Opportunities

A foreign tourist and a local woman crossing the Hussaini suspension bridge located in Gojal Valley, Hunza.


By Dr. Nadir Noor Ali
nbglobal@gmail.com


In September 2008, I made my first visit to Gilgit and Hunza when tourism had not penetrated the region as deeply as it has in the last several years. During my recent visit to Gilgit Baltistan (GB) in Summer 2020, I traveled to Skardu, Gilgit, Hunza (Central and Upper Hunza), and Ghizer (Gupis, Yasin, and Phander) before heading to Upper Chitral, KPK. In my recent visit, I noticed that a lot of businesses have opened up in Hunza and one can see hotel signs stating ‘free internet and hot water’. Markets in Aliabad and Karimabad were flooded with tourists. There is no doubt that the local economy benefits from the influx of tourists. However, it is at this point in time that the people of Hunza—young and old, should reflect on one question:

What type of environment do you want to provide to your current and future generations?

One option for the inhabitants of GB is to create an environment that (a) promotes uncontrolled tourism; (b) focuses more on capitalism than on preserving local values and traditions; (c) does not provide a safe environment for locals and tourists; (d) encourages business expansion at the expense of preserving cultural heritage; (e) restricts tourists to markets and scenic viewpoints so they remain detached from the local culture; and (f) offers options for getting involved in substance abuse for personal and commercial use. The list can go on and if you want to create an environment with the aforementioned outcomes then you need not waste your time in reading the rest of this article.

The other option is to create an environment that (a) promotes a pluralistic value system; (b) focuses on preserving values and traditions; (c) is safe for locals and tourists; (d) enhances cultural exchange, and (e) helps people re-connect with their souls. I will discuss this option in detail as I saw in my recent visit how local residents and business owners, who felt comfortable in sharing their experiences with me, struggled with managing tourism. Also, I observed how local entrepreneurs bent backwards to accommodate varying, and at times unreasonable, needs of tourists. Uncontrolled tourism can have irreversible effects on the region’s economy and the environment, and one can see the warning signs. So, how can the people of GB manage their tourism industry? Let’s consider some specific examples.

Post-COVID Context:

The post-COVID situation offers GB an opportunity to revamp its tourism industry. Businesses should re-think how they can provide various services to tourists with minimal impact on the environment. In the post-COVID context, GB will probably see more local than foreign tourists. Pakistan has a diversity of tourists ranging from those who want to experience back country camping to those who only want to spend time in expensive hotels. Also, diversity brings challenges and opportunities. The challenges that diversity brings offers opportunities for learning about local tourists’ needs. A diverse tourist base suggests that tourists’ needs are spread across a wide spectrum which local business owners should be able to comprehend using a holistic perspective.

In my recent trip, some local business owners, while counting their blessings brought by an exponential growth in tourism, shared with me their frustration they experienced, at times, with local tourists. Behaviors that caused frustration ranged from demanding heavy discounts and using bed sheets for cleaning shoes to throwing stones in toilets and asking for inappropriate entertainment services. These unacceptable behaviors should not be generalized to all local tourists, however, in the post-COVID context they do offer GB business owners a timely opportunity to find ways to promote tourism by educating local tourists about GB, its culture, and its natural resources. I have visited and also lived in various parts of USA, Europe, Canada, and North Africa where tourism is a key to economic development. In all these parts of the world, local tourists play a vital role in lubricating the engine of tourism industry.

After having seeing tourism in various parts of the world, I believe that educating local tourists is the key to managing and promoting tourism in GB. I believe local tourists not only add to the diversity, but compared to foreign tourists, they are also the ones who have easy access to local tourist spots and thus, they are the ambassadors of tourism industry. Therefore, GB business owners must embrace the diversity of local tourists. Also, as experienced in the past, GB can not survive solely on foreign tourists. Hence, the question remains:

 

How to educate local tourists?

First, we must not assume that local tourists can not learn, they can and are willing to learn. But learning takes time, so we must be patient. Second, we must use innovative ways to educate tourists. Third, we should remain open to learning from tourists about their changing needs. Our ultimate goal should be to promote values of pluralism through tourism.

Respect for Cultural Norms:

Tourism should provide learning opportunities to tourists and locals, including local businesses. Tourists in a new place, like new employees in organizations, need orientation. In tourism industry, orientation can be provided using simple and creative ways so that it appeals to all tourists—local and foreign.

When tourists enter Hunza, Ghizer, etc. they can be given colorful, laminated, and easy to read handouts (pamphlets) with a list of ‘Dos’ and ‘Don’ts’. For example:

Welcome to GB! While you are in GB please pay attention to the following:

Dos DON’Ts
1.     Greet everyone with a smile

2.     Drive slowly!

3.     Enjoy the local food

4.     Embrace the nature

5.     Take long walks

6.     Carry a flashlight/torch

7.     Throw garbage only in garbage bins

8.     Ask for help, you are our guest

1.     Don’t feed wild animals

2.     Don’t use your car horn, it is impolite and causes noise pollution

3.     Don’t take pictures of locals without their permission

4.     Don’t smoke in restaurants/tea shops, even if there are no ‘No Smoking’ signs

5.     Don’t harass locals, especially women and children

6.     Don’t ask for alcohol and drugs

NOTE: The handout/pamphlet should be in English and Urdu.

This is only one example of how people of GB can educate tourists who may not know about local customs and traditions. The aforementioned list should also be posted in every hotel, motel, restaurant, and guesthouse (in English and Urdu) as it would serve as a continuous reminder. The same can be posted on sign boards along roadside, once approved by the government. This is similar to what I have seen in places like Canadian Rockies in Alberta, Denali National Park in Alaska, and Marrakesh in Morocco.

Traffic Management:

Places like Aliabad and Karimabad see a lot of traffic and unfortunately many drivers do not care about abiding by the traffic laws. While presence of police will help, locals should take the responsibility of designing and implementing a simple traffic management plan.

In Aliabad, locals should work together to create a pedestrian friendly path on that part of KKH which goes through heavily populated areas. Pedestrians should always get the right of way. This will not only force drivers to slow down, but will also expose them to local business products and services, which in turn will contribute positively to the local economy. Posting ‘slow down’ signs and using frequent barriers (speed breakers) would make things easier. Also, locals can work as volunteers in imposing these basic traffic laws. Volunteers with (fluorescent) ‘safety vests’ should be able to manage rush hour traffic.

In Karimabad, only cars owned by local residents should be allowed to enter the steep residential areas. From a safety perspective, it is not recommended to have any traffic, let alone a two-way traffic on narrow steep roads. Karimabad’s landscape is for those who are into walking. So, encourage tourists to walk. In my recent visit to Karimabad in 2019, the traffic jam there made me claustrophobic. I wondered how an ambulance would find its way in heavy traffic. Here are some ways to manage traffic and parking issues:

  • Use some space in Ganesh for parking purpose.
  • Tourists on a day trip should leave their vehicles and belongings in Ganesh (charge them for parking).
  • Use local shuttles (small vehicles) for taking tourists to various places from Ganesh parking lot.
  • If possible, hire some local females for shuttle services so female tourists and families feel comfortable and learn about equal status of GB women
  • Provide shuttle services only to those who are 55+, below 10, expecting mothers, elderly folks, and those who are physically challenged (disabled). Charge a hefty amount to those who can walk but still want to use shuttle services. In this way, tourists will walk, they will make frequent stops at various shops, and it will help the local economy.
  • Where possible, using small poles along the road, tie ropes along the roadside in Karimabad so that tourists can hold onto those ropes while walking up the steep road.
  • If possible, give some discount coupons to those who decide to walk.
  • Offer services of male and female tour guides so tourists can learn from their guides.
  • Discourage parking of tourist vehicles in Karimabad.

Again, this is only an example and can be modified based on specific local needs. But efficient traffic management is must in Karimabad. Business associations can create a task force for this purpose and pay members of the task force for managing traffic.

Local Food & Recycling:

In restaurants, I noticed an over emphasis on serving fast food, Chinese food, biryani, nihari, and other greasy foods. Except for few eateries in Aliabad and the Bozlanj restaurant in Gulmit, no other restaurant offered local, organic food. Tourism offers GB a wonderful opportunity to promote local food and beverages. Local food can always be customized to the needs of tourists. While tourists may fancy the idea of eating biryani or nihari in mountain areas, the fact is that only local food can be authentic. By the way, once I found Bozlanj in Gulmit, I paid at least one visit per day during my stay there.

Organic meat, dairy, vegetables, eggs, etc. will appeal to tourists’ taste buds as people can not get organic food in cities easily. Local food should be prepared using local ingredients and tourists should be informed about shops from where they can buy local ingredients like pure apricot oil, organic honey, and various varieties of almonds, dried apricots, and tumoor (green tea). Also, offering local, organic food can strengthen the notion of eco-tourism.

Recycling is another area that needs attention. For example, restaurant owners should consider using black/white boards for displaying their menu. In western countries, I have seen many restaurants where a paper menu is not provided. Every day, employees with good handwriting write or update menu on black/white board using different colored chalks/markers.

Also, instead of using paper plates and plastic cutlery, restaurants should consider using ceramic/porcelain/steel crockery and cutlery which can be washed in warm water which will eliminate the problem of recycling disposable plates/cutlery. Hot/cold beverages should also be served in non-disposable cups/glasses. As much as possible, guests should be encouraged to wash their hands in a sink instead of using tissues.

Private Property:

I was told that tourists pick cherries from trees that are on private properties. I also saw a tourist engaging in a similar act so I shared my concern with him after which he apologized. Many tourists need gentle reminders in the form of signs and at times, signs showing consequences. Every house and its farm/lawn should display a sign (in English and Urdu) like the following:

Private property, NO trespassing.
DO NOT pluck fruits from trees. Trees are our livelihood.
DO NOT peek inside homes. Respect our privacy.

Using colorful pictures in signs can have a meaningful impact. Also, local students should be asked to come up with creative messages and designs for signs.

 

Smoking:

It is essential that GB businesses post ‘No Smoking’ signs in every dhaba, restaurant, hotel, and guesthouse. If smoking is not prohibited then it will send a message to tourists that the people of GB do not care about their health and the environment. Hotels/guest houses/motels should provide an outdoor area designated for smoking (cigarettes only) with ashtrays for proper disposal of cigarette butts. Here are some examples of signs to discourage smoking:

NO Smoking in GB. Smoking in injurious to health.
No Smoking! No IFs, ANDs, and (cigarette) BUTTs!
Welcome to GB. You are in NoSmokingstan!

In a well-known hotel in upper Hunza, it was not possible to sit in the lobby to relax because tourists found it an ideal place for smoking. Even the hotel owner himself was smoking in the same lobby. So, hotel/motel owners, especially those who have seen other developed parts of the world, should be role models for tourists. In Europe and North America, fines are imposed on those who smoke indoors. So, it is a serious matter and should not be ignored.

Cleanliness:

Sadly, in various parts of GB, I saw a lot of garbage—plastic bottles, food, chips packets, tissues, etc. Garbage bins are not always enough. Educate locals and tourists by posting following signs:

DO NOT throw garbage on streets.
Garbage belongs only to garbage bins.
We welcome you, NOT your garbage.

In my recent trip, I also observed that local residents and business owners were not keen on disposing garbage appropriately. I could not walk in certain parts of Aliabad because of the of stench of garbage. Cleanliness is next to godliness, but actions speak louder than words. In the post-COVID environment, the matter of cleanliness should not be taken lightly.

Hotel/motel owners can be creative about promoting cleanliness. They can provide medium sized garbage bags to tourists and offer discount if they can fill an entire bag with garbage lying around the hotel/motel. This may create awareness among tourists about maintaining cleanliness.

In many countries, hotels/motels charge a security deposit (in advance) at the time of reservation. The amount is returned after making sure that no damage was caused to the room. In a hotel in Islamabad, at the time of checking out of the hotel, the hotel manager asks an employee to check room(s) for damages and only then guests can check out of the hotel. Similarly, GB hotel/motel owners should take appropriate steps to ensure no one causes damage to their properties. Credit/debit cards can be charged for advance security deposit, which should be refunded as soon as guests’ rooms are checked and no evidence of damage is found. During these times, business owners must focus on maintaining financial security. Terms and conditions pertaining to security deposit should be explicitly stated at the main entrance of hotels/motels. Guests will appreciate if they are informed about the security deposit requirement at the time of reservation.

Public Toilets:

GB needs well-maintained public toilets. If possible, construct clean western style public toilets for men and women with proper water supply, toilet tissues, soaps, and towels. Charge tourists for using toilets, if needed. This can be a good business opportunity for those who want to invest in providing international level toilet facilities across GB. If portable toilets are used, then the matter of sewage disposal should be given attention.

In a well-known hotel in upper Hunza, the owner has constructed toilets that are next to the parking lot mainly for those travelers who may need to use public toilets. He complained that people threw stones in the toilet. Well, this is an opportunity to educate tourists that when you use toilet please use soap, water, and toilet tissues only. Post clear signs inside toilets (behind toilet doors) in English and Urdu. If needed, also post signs with pictures as to how one should sit on a western toilet.

Harassment of & Interactions with Local Women:

A number of locals complained about being harassed by tourists. Harassment should not be taken lightly at all as it is against the law. Post signs in markets, hotels, and on streets with following messages:

GB has ZERO tolerance for harassment.
Minimum punishment for harassment is _____ months in prison.
Minimum fine for harassment is Rupees _____.
Staring at women is an act of harassment.
Teasing/chasing women is an act of harassment.
Harassing anyone is AGAINST the law.

These signs can convey a lot to tourists, especially about interacting with local women. Aggressive methods of educating tourists will be counterproductive and thus, innovative methods should be used. Seek advice of local lawyers so that you are protected by the law of the land. Ask the local administration to post female police officers in densely populated areas.

Posting signs discouraging harassment is as important as posting signs discouraging the use of plastic bags. Why should people wait for something serious to happen, be proactive!

Tourist Services:

During my recent trip in 2019, I had to look for information pertaining to hiking paths, distance between towns, scenic spots, clinics, restaurants, and rental car services. Each hotel/motel should carry proper information so that tourists do not end up asking questions about various services all the time. Few soft boards with relevant information about the aforementioned services would really help. Post information on soft boards in an organized manner in hotel/motel lobbies about the following:

  • Rental car services (ask service providers to keep their rates fixed)
  • NATCO bus station information—phone number(s) and hours
  • Scenic points
  • Must visit restaurants
  • Hiking paths
  • Distances among various cities/town and scenic points
  • Clinic/hospital contact information
  • Police station contact

I also noticed that young staff members in some hotels needed more training. Trained staff members tend to be more confident. Empower them to make decisions, especially in offering discounts. Front desk staff should be assertive and firm about rates. Also, hotels/motels should be transparent in offering discounts. Please note, all tourists (local and foreign) enjoy availing discounts. So, train your staff well for handling these matters. In addition, provide vests/jackets to staff so visitors can easily distinguish them from other tourists. All these changes will make your hotel/motel look professional.

Final Thoughts:

GB’s society is an educated society with a centuries-old value system that promotes learning and respect for humanity. It is my belief that the people of GB will become a role model for the rest of country by promoting learning and pluralism through tourism. We are familiar with the phenomenon of eco-tourism, but for GB I have coined another term which is plu-tourism which combines pluralism and tourism. Hope GB takes the lead in promoting tourism in a pluralistic manner.

——————–Thank you——————–

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