By Sarosh Sultan
Gilgit-Baltistan has witnessed a surge in domestic tourism in recent years, with Hunza in particular becoming a favorite vacation destination for domestic tourism. However, this influx of tourists has also brought about a proliferation of unregulated tourism infrastructure, leading to a multitude of issues that threaten the very essence of life in the valley. The pressing environmental, social, and cultural challenges posed by unchecked tourism growth and the construction of mega-hotels, often by non-local investors, take center stage in these issues. With construction work underway for several multi-million-dollar hotels in Hunza, there is an urgent need to comprehend the risks these ventures pose for the local population and demand regulations to control these uncontrolled initiatives.
Water is a precious resource in Hunza, and its scarcity has always been a concern for the local population. Local tribal customs have created a complex and delicate system of water distribution in effect for several centuries, providing people with domestic use and irrigation water. The precisely laid down system with regulated priorities for different crops and farms ensures equal share for each indigenous farmer. Such water management systems sustain agriculture in the region, which is the livelihood of around 90 per cent of the local residents in Gilgit-Baltistan. With the inundation of tourists and the construction of numerous hotels, the demand for water has surged to unprecedented levels. Hotels require vast quantities for their operations, from sanitation to landscaping, often exceeding the local supply capacity. As a result, communities face greater struggles to access sufficient clean water for their daily needs. Climate change has added to water insecurity, with sources like the Passu glacier receding by as much as 10 per cent in less than four decades, making the issue even more dire.
The lack of proper sewage and wastewater treatment facilities in many of these hotels exacerbates their environmental impact. Without adequate infrastructure to manage wastewater, hotels resort to crude disposal methods, such as dumping raw sewage into septic tanks that leech into nearby water bodies. Luxus Hunza Hotel, a luxury resort built in partnership with the Lahore-based Luxus Grand Hotel, has soakage pits dug at the brinks of Attabad Lake which contaminate the water used by the population downstream. The severe disregard for health and sanitation, and a dismissive attitude towards the warnings issued to Luxus regarding their practices, raises questions of how checks on development are crucial to mititgate harm to local populations.
Another major issue is electricity. Electricity supply in Hunza has been limited for decades now, with power outages upwards of 15 hours being an unfortunately common occurrence. The surge in tourism has aggravated this issue, as hotels demand a consistent and often excessive supply of electricity to cater to their guests’ needs. Residents face extreme electric shortages, and with unregulated constructions, the issue is only bound to worsen. Residents have long demanded additional hydro-power plants to meet local consumption but have received little response from local authorities. As the tourist industry booms, and uncontrolled development continues, the strain on local resources grows exponentially. When hydroelectric power is insufficient, many hotels rely on generators running on fossil fuels like diesel or petrol. These generators compound to the energy crisis and contribute significantly to air and noise pollution in the valley.
As a result of these challanges, concerns are being raised by local organizations about resource management for many of the new projects. Serena Hotels’ expansion in Karimabad is adding over 100 more rooms in the five-star, creating a five-storied steel and concrete mass that includes a business center, two swimming pools, and a spa, all while also blocking the skyline view of the Karimabad valley and infringing on the privacy of residents in the neighborhood. The huge under-construction concrete structure has also jeopardized the prominence of the ancient Baltit Fort. How resources for running this hotel will be obtained is yet to be understood. The hotel has also remained uncooperative and hostile towards requests for transparency by Town Management Society (TMS), a native run community organization that undertakes care of municipal affairs. This attitude of nonchalance is the antithesis of the very fundamental principles of inclusive development and participatory approach that AKDN has been advocating.
Another factor that requires attention is the unchecked construction of hotels by non-local investors, posing a threat to Hunza’s social fabric. Traditionally, people refrained from selling land to outsiders due to land scarcity and difficulty in assigning community responsibilities for essential services, like maintaining waterways. With non-local investors acquiring land and erecting hotels, they often bypass local customs but still demand a share of the already limited resources. Luxus, after claiming a stake in water resource from Shishkat valley in Hunza, is now demanding a share in the community owned meadow where they allegedly plan to build a resort. This gentrification has also led to skyrocketing land prices, making it increasingly unaffordable for the locals. If this trend continues, it may result in people being displaced from their ancestral homes, a situation reminiscent of similar issues in places like Hawaii or, closer to home, Murree.
Hunza Valley is renowned for its rich culture and traditions, which are at risk due to the rapid growth of unchecked tourism. Cultural appropriation is rampant, with little more than lip service paid to local concerns. Indigenous customs and heritage are overshadowed by the commercialization of the land. The situation in Hunza underscores the urgent need for balanced and sustainable tourism development. Unregulated tourism and mega-hotel construction, based solely on myopic and profit-driven interests have caused severe environmental, social, and cultural challenges. To preserve the beauty and authenticity of this remarkable valley, it is imperative for both the government and the private sector to collaborate on comprehensive regulations that ensure sustainable growth, respect for local customs, and protection of the valley’s precious environment.
A master plan of urban development regulating land zoning and defining building rules and regulations needs to be introduced on war footings. Since the formation of municipal committee is underway, it is high time that we learn from the similar experiences elsewhere in the world and form regulations under an integrated masterplan which is approved and implemented through an elected municipal committee.
To ensure long-term sustainability, comprehensive regulations and sustainable tourism practices must be put in place. Local and national authorities, in collaboration with the tourism industry, must work together to address these pressing issues, preserving the valley’s natural beauty and ecological balance for generations to come. Locals’ demands for transparency must be met, and private enterprises must respect the integrity of Hunza.
Hunza represents a unique culture that has flourished in the Karakoram for hundreds of years. Only through responsible tourism can the valley truly continue to captivate the hearts of travelers while safeguarding the interests of its people and heritage. Without sustainable tourism practices that prioritize conservation, resource management, and community involvement, Hunza is doomed to turn into yet another sad example of gentrification.
“Sarosh Sultan is pursuing a master’s degree in International Relations and Comparative Politics at Georgia State University. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science from Lahore University of Management
Sciences (LUMS). With a keen interest in conflict mitigation, peacebuilding, humanitarianism, and development, Sarosh is actively engaged in the field as an intern with the Project on Prosperity and Development team at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).