Tourism offers an opportunity to rebuild the local economy of Pakistan’s Swat Valley, ravaged by conflicts and floods. But can it also restore its rivers and forests? Rina Saeed Khan reports.

For years, Pakistan’s former princely state of Swat, famous for its fruit orchards, snow-clad mountains, Buddhist stupas and trout-filled rivers, was a popular tourist destination. Its hotels were clean and its people well educated, at least in the main towns. Then the Taliban came. First, they shut down the hotels. Then they started destroying them, along with the schools.

“They blew up the famous Pakistan Tourism Development Corporations’ ski resort in Malam Jabba. They also started bombing the girls’ schools. It was a terrible time – anyone who had any means started leaving Swat,” said Ehsanullah Khan, a landowner and long-time resident of Matta, which was at the heart of Taliban activities at the time.

Like many others, Khan moved to the capital, Islamabad, when the army moved in to flush out the Taliban in May 2009. The army operation, though bloody, did not last very long. By July 2009, the internally displaced persons of the Swat Valley, once known idyllically as the “Emerald Valley”, began to return to their war-torn homes and villages. Khan went back to Matta and was dismayed to see the damage: “The crops were destroyed, the rice could not be sown, and the tourism industry was ruined. The local people were in a quandary.”

Before the arrival of the Taliban, tourism was the main revenue source for the local economy of Swat. Many tourists from Khyber Pukhtunkhwa would come here in the summers to escape the scorching heat of Peshawar and the plains. The hotel industry mushroomed as tourists poured in.

After the Pakistan military operation ended, NGOs and donor agencies stepped in to help the local people rebuild their livelihoods. Then, in 2010, massive floods hit the Swat Valley due to unprecedented monsoon rainfall in the region and damaged many more hotels located alongside the River Swat.

The flooding was made worse by extensive deforestation that started in the 1990s and worsened thanks to links between the Taliban and the timber mafia, which operates in the north of Pakistan. Under Taliban rule, many forests in Swat were cut down. Experts say that the lack of trees and thick vegetation to slow down the water flow intensified the flooding of 2010 took on greater intensity. “If you don’t stop the water it will go at a greater speed,” pointed out Shafqat Kakakhel, former deputy director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “Deforestation is a big problem in Pakistan.”

WWF-Pakistan estimates forest cover in the country is now less than 3%. Wherever the Taliban took control (as it did in Swat and Waziristan) protected forests were cut down and exploited with no regards to the consequences. There is no information available on the extent of the deforestation, however, since most NGOs are focused on reviving the Swat Valley economy, and rebuilding hotels, schools and other infrastructure lost to war and floods.

But before the floods, tourism had brought environmental problems as well as economic benefits to the region. Many of the hotels along the River Swat had been dumping their waste into the river for years and NGOs protesting against the pollution. In 2006, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) funded a local NGO to conduct a pollution survey of the River Swat, which revealed problems beginning at the hill resort of Kalam and intensifying around Mingora (near the capital of Swat) and that the pollution in the river was well above acceptable limits.

Previously, the government’s environmental protection agency had tried unsuccessfully to construct a compost plant and septic tanks in Mingora to save the River Swat from pollution by sewerage and effluent of hotels.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) estimates “pre-conflict annual contribution of the tourism industry to Swat’s economy” at US$60 million (379 million yuan). It says there was “a sharp decline after the conflict in 2007, with total revenue losses of an estimated US$27 million with floods in July 2010 adding to the challenges.”

With USAID’s assistance, 239 hotels in Swat received US$2.7 million (17 million yuan) in cash grants and in-kind assistance such as construction material, furniture and other hotel supplies. They also received training in hotel management and other technical assistance. After years of inaction, hotels in Swat finally started re-opening their doors in 2011 to receive tourists for the summer season.

In July 2011, a nationwide media campaign was launched to help attract tourists to Swat. And, according to USAID, “the occupancy rate has climbed exponentially for these hotels, and US$668,390 in sales revenue has been recorded for the 2011 season, which is a substantial increase over last year.”

The agency claims the revival of tourism has helped initiate the overall recovery of Swat’s economy. Ameer Noshad, the owner of two hotels in Swat agrees: both of his hotels are once again catering to tourists. “Things are finally looking up for me and for hundreds of other hoteliers in Swat,” he pointed out.

But for Khan, there are still challenges. While agreeing that Swat is now safe for tourism, he said it is still difficult for visitors to venture into the more picturesque mountain areas of KalamBahrain and Madyan due to army check posts and flood-damaged roads. These areas are known for their pine forests, alpine meadows and clear lakes; and are ideal for trekking and hiking.

He continued: “There are no Taliban left in the area and the people of Swat want to recover from the terror they faced. But I think that more than building hotels, they should fix the roads.

“We desperately need better roads. Once the tourists start coming, the local people will start building the hotels themselves. What the government and NGOs should do is to make sure that there is proper drainage and waste management for all these new hotels and that the river is not polluted like before and that the remaining forests are protected.”

Khan’s foreign friends are keen to visit Swat again, he said. As the old saying goes, “if you build it, they will come.”

Rina Saeed Khan is a freelance environmental journalist based in Lahore. 

Homepage image by Aamer Javed

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