Responsible Tourism: Unplanned Investments and Endangered Mountain Communities in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral

By Kashif Essa 

Responsible tourism requires a careful balance between promoting tourism and preserving the natural, cultural, and economic well-being of local communities. Recent controversies surrounding tourism investments in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral regions highlight the challenges in achieving this balance. The tourism and cultural economies being the recent priorities of the government policies the regularisation still need to be worked on to guarantee this development doesn’t effect the local indigenous natural and cultural settings.

The Case of Monal Restaurant and Adjacent Buildings in Islamabad:

The Supreme Court of Pakistan’s decision to seal the Monal Restaurant and adjacent buildings in the national park reflects a growing recognition of the need to protect natural spaces from unchecked commercial development. While this decision may inconvenience many Islamabad residents who frequently visited the restaurant for its scenic views and natural ambiance, it underscores a broader principle: tourism should not come at the expense of environmental degradation and the displacement of small communities. This ruling aligns with a global trend towards sustainable tourism, which seeks to minimize the environmental footprint of tourist activities while maximizing benefits for local populations.

The Debate Over New Developments in Hunza:

In Hunza, the situation is more complex. The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) has historically played a pivotal role in the region through its Historic Cities Program. The restoration of Baltit Fort and its surroundings is a celebrated example of how cultural preservation can drive economic and social development. This project not only boosted tourism but also improved the quality of life for residents by providing essential services and infrastructure, thereby preserving the area’s historical and cultural integrity. The pilot project in implementing the basic services integrated in these century old settlements were first of its type imagine of services of sewerage, underground electric and communication systems, making it liveable again for generations to come.

However, the recent addition of Serena hotel building in Karimabad/Baltit by Tourism Promotion Services (TPS), a subsidiary of AKDN, has sparked significant debate. Critics argue that the new hotel, with over 100 rooms, contradicts the principles of responsible tourism that the AKDN has long championed. Concerns have been raised about the environmental impact, the hurried nature of the decision, and the appropriateness of the architectural design. The hotel’s construction, along with the installation of solar panels at Duikar, another scenic site with a skyline of 7000 meters peaks, been covered with the solar panels, has been perceived as disruptive to the local landscape and community.

The architecture and construction quality of this new building doesn’t seem promising compared to past AKDN projects, with the past projects and associated with the world top Architects as Fumihiko Maki, Norman Foster, Nayar Ali Dada, Rafael Vinoly with projects as Aga Khan Centre London/Toronto, University of Central Asia-Campus, Aga Khan University Karachi, Serena Hotel Islamabad, marking these projects as symbol of buildings not only functional and aesthetically pleasing but also sustainable and culturally relevant. In similar area through its historical cities program and Aga Khan Trust for culture initiatives, AKDN has set high standards with thoughtfully designed buildings like the Leif Larson Music School in Altit Fort, the TMS Building in Karimabad, Abruzzi School Shigar, Serena Shiger Fort Palace recent extension building. These projects blend local architecture and contemporary functions and are renowned as symbols of responsible tourism.

The new hotel significantly exceeds the allowable floor area ratio, altering natural slopes and leading to a substantial increase in its carbon footprint. Local architectural norms emphasize buildings facing south to maximize sunlight and minimize reliance on mechanical energy. In contrast, the new hotel is likely to necessitate a robust HVAC system, requiring heating during severe winters and cooling in summers, thereby further escalating its carbon footprint. Moreover, the hotel’s sewerage system places additional stress on local water resources by discharging waste into them, exacerbating current infrastructure challenges. Despite its design featuring heavy concrete structures coated with mud-coloured paint, the building falls short of environmental friendliness standards. Furthermore, the large west-facing glass windows raise privacy concerns among the long-standing residents of the nearby small local neighbourhood. The suggested LEED certification appears inadequate in justifying its scale, whereas the LEED certification has various value points, the rating system focuses on building design and construction quality, impact on environment and carbon foot print, which this building clearly seems have more negative impacts, on immediate environment and surroundings.

Importance of Comprehensive Planning and Stakeholder Involvement:

The success of earlier AKDN projects in Hunza can be attributed to their holistic approach, involving comprehensive planning and stakeholder engagement. Drafting master plans, establishing policies for construction and environmental management, and actively involving government bodies, local communities, and NGOs were crucial to these projects’ success. These efforts ensured that tourism development was aligned with the region’s cultural and environmental values.

In contrast, the controversy surrounding the new Serena Hotel highlights the risks of deviating from these principles. For responsible tourism to be effective, it must prioritize local needs and sustainability over rapid development and commercialization. Architectural and design choices should enhance, rather than detract from, the local environment and community.

The Way Forward:

To move towards truly responsible tourism in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral, the following steps should be considered:

  • Enhanced Environmental and Cultural Impact Assessments: Rigorous assessments should be conducted for all new projects to evaluate their potential impact on the environment and local culture.
  • Stakeholder Engagement: Local communities, civil society, and government bodies should be actively involved in the planning and decision-making processes to ensure that developments meet their needs and priorities.
  • Sustainable Architecture and Design: New constructions should reflect sustainable practices, blending local architectural styles with modern needs without compromising the natural landscape.
  • Balanced Development: Tourism development should be balanced with the preservation of natural and cultural heritage, ensuring that economic benefits do not come at the cost of environmental degradation or cultural erosion.
  • Regular Review and Adaptation: Policies and plans should be regularly reviewed and adapted based on feedback from all stakeholders and evolving environmental and cultural conditions.

By adhering to these principles, tourism in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral can be developed responsibly, ensuring that it benefits both visitors and local communities while preserving the unique natural and cultural heritage of the region.

Kashif Essa is an expert in cultural heritage conservation, specializing in documenting and preserving historical sites. With a background in archaeology and advanced technology, he manages heritage projects globally. Kashif has led significant initiatives like digital documentation in Pakistan and conservation projects in Venice, Italy. He holds a Master’s in World Heritage Projects and a bachelor’s in architecture. Email: kashif.essa@gmail.com

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