Tourism under threat

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With over 50 foreign tours cancelled, Northern Areas face another crisis

Chilas is mourning the attack on foreign tourists – and there is a simple reason: the economy of the Northern Areas of Pakistan is for a large part dependent upon them. After 10 foreign mountaineers hoping to scale the Nanga Parbat peak were killed by Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)-affiliated militants on Saturday night, around 50 scheduled tours to the area are said to have been cancelled. The result is that after the Swat tourist industry, which has been reeling since 2007, it is now tourist industry in the Hindu Kush, the Karakorram and Himalayas that is under threat. While Swat was liberated after many sacrifices, the question of what to do with the threat in Gilgit-Baltistan remains open. There are no reports suggesting an organized presence of militants which suggests the attacks are coming from bases elsewhere.

This is the reason why thousands participated in a protest in Chilas on Monday against the massacre of foreign tourists. Both Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leaders addressed the 4,000 plus gathering at the Siddiq Akbar. A PML-N leader said the attacks were aimed at derailing important projects such as the Diamer–Bhasha Dam and railway track project with China. But more directly, the tourists are one of the main sources of income for locals and that is now under threat. Already at least 40 foreigners including citizens from Serbia, Italy, Ireland, Denmark and the United States, among several other nationalities, were evacuated from a higher camp at the Nanga Parbat. A group of Romanians is believed to be scaling the mountain from another side, and probably fearing for their lives. Some other groups booked for climbs this summer have already cancelled. The president of the Alpine Club of Pakistan has called the attack a ‘fatal blow’ to the mountaineering industry.

While, on the one side, the attack was unprecedented, on the other, it was not. Enough of a warning had been given last year, when groups of Shias were taken off buses by men in paramilitary uniforms and shot dead in the Gilgit-Baltistan area. No action had been taken against groups responsible for the attacks. Geographically, Pakistan is a climbers’ paradise, being home to the world’s second highest mountain, K2, and three more among the world’s 14 highest summits. In more peaceful times, Pakistan’s northern beauty would be a major tourist draw, but the TTP-led insurgency has dealt it yet another severe blow. The bulk of the blame falls on law-enforcement agencies for not providing significant cover for tourists – and now it is for the government to attract tourists again. How much more can Pakistan take from the continuing militancy? While the previous government may be blamed for the apathy that led to this situation, it is time for the current government to step up to the pedestal and secure the Northern Areas.