I slowly pivoted on the spot, trying to keep my hand steady, as my phone’s camera captured the stunning natural beauty all around me. But no matter which angle I tried, I could not get a 360 degree view of the Khunjerab Pass without trash becoming part of the video.
The Khunjerab Pass is the world’s highest paved mountain pass, connecting Pakistan with China. Despite being located within a national park, tourists fail to comply with instructions regarding proper waste disposal. A food stall at the top of the pass was selling biryani, snacks and tea in plastic containers to tourists which they casually threw into the icy streams, with nobody stopping them.
Laws and guidelines exist, but they are not enforced. In the Khunjerab National Park the number of staff is too small to police the relatively large area and hence, implementation of the law is weak. Nevertheless even if there were a few park officers posted in Khunjerab’s parking lot area armed with pollution tickets during peak tourist season, it could make a significant difference in the short term, as well as set up a way of doing things in the future. At present, there is no penalty for littering, so people do as they wish.
But this might be just the time to signal a change, as tourism in the country is set to expand mightily.
Pakistan is undergoing a severe balance of payments crisis and the government is aggressively promoting tourism in order to generate income for the national exchequer. According to official records, over two million tourists visited the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) during the week-long Eid holidays in June.
However, Pakistan’s tourism infrastructure is presently unable to cater to a large volume of tourists over a short span of time. The World Tourism Organization defines “tourism carrying capacity” as “the maximum number of people that may visit a tourist destination at the same time, without causing destruction of the physical, economic, socio-cultural environment and an unacceptable decrease in the quality of visitors’ satisfaction.”
In Pakistan, massive crowds are disturbing local communities and creating dangerous conditions for travellers. Selfie-deaths and accidents due to overcrowding on bridges are now a common phenomenon during the tourist season. The roads to popular tourist hotspots in the mountainous north are often narrow, dangerous and prone to landslides. Remote areas do not have access to grid electricity or piped gas and use heavily polluting diesel generators to power hotels and restaurants.
Struggles in Swat
In early March, I went on a road trip to Swat with my family. We arrived at the iconic Serena Hotel in Saidu Sharif just in time for the Friday prayers.
This hotel an important landmark. Queen Elizabeth II stayed there, in the historic White Palace suite along with her husband, Prince Philip, when they visited the Wali of Swat, Miangul Jahanzeb Khan in 1961. During that trip, the Queen famously remarked that Swat is the ‘Switzerland of the East’. Even today the hotel retains its old-world charm with a preponderance of exquisite indigenous woodwork, warm, rich furnishings and traditional gardens.
Right outside the hotel walls however, a newly built shopping mall featuring elite brands seemed somewhat at odds with the historic character of the site and contrasted strongly with the surrounding poverty. Ad hoc development, in an attempt to revive the economy after the banishment of the Taliban from the region, has led to severe environmental degradation. Adjacent mountains have been denuded of trees and unsightly corrugated metal shacks have sprung up everywhere.
The following day, we drove to the Malam Jabba Ski Resort. Located at a height of 9,000 feet (2,743 metres) this world class resort was inaugurated by the Pakistani prime minister, Imran Khan, in 2016, and has attracted thousands of skiers since then. A sturdy chair-lift carries skiers and tourists to and from the peak, offering stunning views of the lush valley. A sporting goods store on the premises rents out skiing equipment and local trainers are available to teach basic skiing.
Later this year, an international hotel chain will be opening a five-star hotel at Malam Jabba. The government is rebuilding roads to facilitate tourists and a new highway to Swat has recently been completed. It is likely that the number of tourists to these areas will increase manifold but there seems to be no strategic plan which will stop this from becoming a replay of what has happened around the Serena – denuded hillsides, runaway commercialization, and uneven development.
The time to act is now
Pakistan’s spectacular natural beauty and colourful ethnic culture have immense tourism potential. Tourism can provide much-needed jobs, infrastructure and economic development in remote areas. However, it is important to ensure that socioeconomic development does not compromise long-term sustainability for short-term financial gains.
The Northern Areas are home to fragile ecosystems which can be irreversibly damaged by a single season of unchecked tourism. Murree and Naran, popular summer destinations for locals due to their relative ease of access, have already fallen victim to this cycle. Murree’s beauty is marred by piles of putrid garbage and the fresh smell of pine cones is now overwhelmed by the stink of untreated effluent.
When I visited Naran last summer, sewage and waste water from hotels and restaurants was being disposed of directly into the Naran River. Tourists had thrown litter everywhere, with no regard for the consequences, resulting in plastic packaging clogging up streams, poisoning aquatic life and rendering the water undrinkable, when once visitors could drink straight from the river.
Ultimately severe environmental degradation can ruin the tourism potential of a region negating any economic gains. But abject poverty guarantees that people will sacrifice anything to feed their families and provide a better future to their children even if that means ruining their long-term livelihood and compromising their community’s well-being. As local farmer Hasan mentioned to me, “It is difficult to adopt a long-term perspective when your immediate concern is where the next meal will come from.”
Ecological tourism or “eco-tourism” where tourists travel with the intent of learning about the local environment and culture without causing harm could be the way forward. However, it would require all relevant stakeholders including government authorities, tour operators, local communities, tourists and the hospitality industry to commit to the conservation of natural and cultural resources. The Serena Hotel chain, for example, is encouraging responsible tourism through a “carbon philanthropy” initiative. Travellers to their hotels in Gilgit-Baltistan, a region which is already experiencing adverse impacts of climate change, are encouraged to plant trees to off-set unavoidable carbon emissions caused by activities such as flying and driving.
As the government opens up more areas to tourists, several advance measures can be undertaken to minimize environmental damage. The authorities could employ modern waste management facilities and impose strict and heavy fines for littering. Moreover they could make sure that these fines are actually imposed. Just as rules are imposed more strictly on national highways, these high-tourist areas could also be seen as areas requiring greater care, and which may help change current social behaviour around littering.
An example would be a country like Singapore, which imposes a heavy USD 1,000 fine for first time offenders, and a USD 3,000 fine, or jail, for third time offenders. The threat of strict action in the densely populated city-state has enforced a social code that does not allow littering. Pakistan, too, must figure out ways to change social behaviour of its population, if not comprehensively, at least in areas where it wants to create sustainable high-value tourism venues.
A toll-tax for tourist hotspots could generate funds to clean and maintain the areas. Tour operators could be required to undergo mandatory environmental awareness training and tour groups could be briefed about proper waste disposal. Targeted media campaigns could also be used to create environmental awareness and drive behavioural change. Ultimately, however, change must begin at the grassroots level by inculcating environmental consciousness and appreciation for nature and culture among the youth throughout the school curriculum.