“I won’t allow this on my watch,” said an incensed chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B), Hafeez ur Rehman, talking to The Third Pole over the phone from the capital city of Gilgit. He was referring to the recent announcement by Prime Minister Imran Khan in which Khan talked about opening the tourism industry and directed the provincial governments of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and G-B to prepare standard operating procedures in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

The prime minister pointed out that the warm months were important for those whose livelihoods are linked to tourism and feared a continued closure could lead to more joblessness. 

As coronavirus infections in the country spiked and fatalities increased following a relaxation of the lockdown on May 9, many were expecting an imposition of a stricter lockdown. In fact, two weeks before the government had eased the lockdown, the Punjab health department had warned of an unprecedented spike in the rate of infections in Lahore alone. “No workplace and residential area of any town is disease-free,” it had warned. 

In light of these apprehensions, this decision to further open tourism has raised eyebrows. Some have termed it “crazy” and “insane”. 

Putting communities at risk

“He [the prime minister] will be responsible for mass homicide,” said Lahore-based Maria Umar, a social entrepreneur working for financial empowerment of women and who visits the mountainous regions of Pakistan religiously every year. 

“Hunza is probably the one place that’s safe from Covid-19 and he [prime minister] is putting the lives of those people at risk by opening tourism! I want to go to the mountains and spend a week camping in Deosai, but what I need to do for myself and others is stay put where I am,” she emphasised. “He is giving a false sense of security to others which is going to end ugly,” Umar warned. 

While some in the government will eagerly point to countries in Europe which are reopening tourism hotspots like Rome’s Colosseum and the leaning tower of Pisa, it is important to note that these countries have largely come down from their “peak phases” whereas Pakistan’s is a few weeks away. 

Pakistan is now among the world’s top 10 countries when it comes to new daily deaths and cases. 

Government’s defence

Defending the prime minister’s announcement, Aftab Rana, chairman of the National Tourism Recovery Action Committee, said the decision was neither sudden nor out of the blue, but a “well thought-out” one. 

“We have been meticulously working on developing a strategy to open up tourism now for the last three months,” he said. He added that the idea is not to open the floodgates for tourists, but allow “controlled tourism” with strict health measures. 

He said that stakeholders such as big and small hoteliers to restaurant owners, porters and transporters have been consulted by the government. Even shop owners, tour operators and guides were part of the decision-making, he said.

This was endorsed by Khushal Khan, Secretary Tourism of KP. “Once we get a nod, we will ensure through the district administration and the police that the SOPs (standard operating procedures) are enforced,” he said. 

Khan said crowding will be limited both in terms of occupancy in guest rooms and in dining areas of hotels as well as restaurants and no one will be allowed anywhere without masks and gloves. Social distancing and disinfecting guidelines will also be put in place. He said the signage, sign boards and pamphlets for the tourists to follow the rules have already been designed.

But G-B’s chief minister Rehman remained unconvinced. “It is one thing to have these on paper; quite another to implement them on the ground,” he said. “I oppose this emphatically!” 

Unfortunately, he said, his term will end on June 24.

Pakistan on the cusp of tourism boom

The fears expressed by Rehman and others in the travel trade are legitimate. Even in big cities in Pakistan, many of the SOPs in place for public gatherings, shops and mosques have been blatantly violated. Mask wearing and face coverings are far from the norm and commercial centres are crammed with people standing close to one another. 

Despite these violations of SOPs and the swelling cases and deaths, the government appears desperate to re-open travel to the mountains. Even pre-Covid-19, Imran Khan was eager to boost tourism in Pakistan’s scenic northern areas, with many speculating that the October 2019 visit of Prince William and Kate Middleton would put Pakistan back in the spotlight as an attractive, safe tourist spot.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during a visit to the SOS Village at Lahore in Pakistan [image: Alamy]

With Covid-19 and its resultant economic slowdown, it appears that the government’s hopes of generating revenue through Pakistan’s fledgling tourism industry were thwarted — revenue and jobs that it is not prepared to forego out of fear of the virus.

Rana insisted that the number of visitors to these places was significant to allow opening tourism. “Over 1.5 million domestic tourists visit G-B, in these months; and 1.2 million visit places like Swat, Peshawar, Chitral, Abbottabad etc., annually. Imagine the impact these regions will feel without this form of income generation.” 

The chief minister of G-B, however, had a different take: “We survived a decade without tourism when terrorists stalked our land; a year without tourism will not be a problem,” Rehman said, adding that 90% of the citizens of G-B were opposed to outsiders visiting their region at this time of the pandemic. 

“Our health system is just not good enough to take the load if things go out of control,” he said. 

Poor healthcare

The statistics for healthcare infrastructure are indeed grim. According to a 2017 study by Amimah Fatima Asif, a medical officer at the district headquarter hospital in Skardu, emergency departments and mental health are among the most undermined and forsaken areas of healthcare, primarily in the far flung Gilgit Baltistan region of Pakistan.

“Another grave issue is that the doctor to population ratio in G-B is alarmingly disproportionate i.e. 1:4100 whereas the national statistic is 1:1206,” she wrote in the study, which was published in the Pakistan Journal of Public Health. “This statistical evidence testifies to the stark reality that healthcare in Gilgit-Baltistan is in an appalling state.” 

She added: “The DHQs, THQs, BHUs (government health centres at various levels), and dispensaries are of negligible benefit to the community since doctors are rarely available, a handful of laboratory investigations are being performed, there is a serious shortage of trained laboratory and operation theatre technicians and trained nursing staff, and no basic medicines are procurable. Accident and emergency departments are in [a] dismal state with limited availability of lifesaving drugs.”

Tour operators oppose re-opening

Seema Alkarimi, a young woman from G-B who started an AirBnB style startup called ‘LetsHome’, is among those opposed to the re-opening of tourism. Business was good for the two years since this started. But she has been refusing to book for destination weddings, ‘corona vacations’ and yoga retreats.  

She feared the tourists will not follow the SOPs issued by the government and the local people hired to cater to them will fall sick. 

“I’d rather lose customers and business than have my people fall sick,” she said. Like the chief minister, she said there were “just not enough health facilities” in G-B.

But even if tourism is re-opened, said Afshan Bano, who works in the hospitality industry, “holidaying here will just not be the same as it was pre-pandemic.”

“For instance, we will not be able to give our guests the warm traditional welcome offering of the home-made bread and butter and the welcome drink,” she said, adding they have to come up with a newer way that requires “minimal human touch.”   

With a decade of experience working with a five-star chain of hotels in G-B as marketing and communications manager, Bano said: “Earlier, tourists would walk about freely around town, pick cherries from trees belonging to locals; many would get invited in for a cup of tea; or shown the inside of a home…all this will not happen. People are just too scared.”

The same fear and trepidation is palpable in the hotel business too. “We will be taking a lot of precautions from the time a guest arrives at the airport till he leaves our premises — we already are. But what if a guest gets infected? All the blame will fall on us.” 

For now, Bano said, her hotel was holding on to the reservations and will book as soon as they get the G-B government’s approval.

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