Visitors not allowed

 

The hotel industry in Swat has suffered a loss of about Rs 5 billion while around 20,000 people associated with tourism have lost their jobs. Hoteliers share their woes…

 

By Muhammad Shahid

Militancy in certain parts of Swat, also known as Switzerland of the East, and the subsequent military operation have dealt a severe blow to tourism, depriving thousands of their source of bread and butter.

The local businessmen and hoteliers blame exaggerated media reports for their current economic depression. They say that militancy is confined to a small belt of Swat district, but people conceive of the entire district as a boiling cauldron.

Taliban have established their strongholds in the remote Peuchar area of the troubled Matta and Kabal tehsils. However, tourists from within the country and abroad have abandoned visiting the entire Swat district in view of the news about violence in certain areas.

A 20-member delegation of journalists recently visited Kalam valley on a three-day tour arranged by Kalam Hotels Association. It was a pleasant experience travelling to the valley by road passing through orchards of pears and apples.

“Tourists believe Taliban are present in Kalam and are slaughtering people but you have seen there is not a single militant here,” a local Malik, Ghazan Khan, told journalists. Malik Ghazan, who has grown a handlebar moustache, said the people of Kalam were peaceful, loving and hospitable and that the tourists were as safe there as before.

Kalam is located at an altitude of 8,600 feet and around 99 kilometres from Mingora, the Swat headquarters. The area houses around 250 hotels, some of which have been rented by people as houses.

Kalam Hotels Association President and owner of Kalam Continental Hotel Dr Abdul Wadud said the hotel industry had suffered almost Rs5 billion loss during the last two years. “Earlier, we were unable to accommodate the huge number of tourists thronging the Kalam valley, but this year only a few tourists came.” He said around 20,000 people had lost their jobs. “There were 15 people working at my hotel, but now the number has dropped to just one,” he said.

On behalf of the Kalam Hotel Association, Dr Wadud demanded the government to announce a special package for local hoteliers to make up for the losses they have suffered.

Those associated with tourism also complain that the area lacks facilities compared to Murree, Nathia Gali and other tourist resorts. For instance, they cite the facility of chairlifts which are not available in Kalam though the area is most suitable to accommodate them.

Zahir Khan, President Swat Hotels Association who owns Al-Haramain Hotel in Mingora, said the hotel industry throughout Swat had suffered almost Rs2.5 billion loss in 2007. “Around 15,000 people associated with tourism have lost their jobs.”

Rehmat Sidique, General Secretary Kalam Hotels Association and owner of Pameer Hotel, alleged the Pakistan and Sarhad Tourism Development Corporations had directed tour operators not to accompany tourists to Kalam. He added that the local hotels had cut their staff. “There were around 15 people working at my hotel, but now there are three, while more than 700 shops in the bazaar have been closed. Nowadays we are charging Rs500 for a room that was rented out for Rs3000 to 4000 in the past.”

A hotelier, requesting anonymity, said ‘hidden hands’ had been trying to damage the tourism industry of Frontier province even before the emergence of Talibanisation. “It has been a long cherished desire of the hoteliers in Murree and Nathia Gali to divert the attention of tourists from tourist hotspots in Frontier province and the emergence of Taliban seems to be part of that strategy.”

Several local people complained about their problems. The Kalam valley houses a ‘civil hospital’ but it lacks facilities. Kalam Union Council Nazim Habibullah Saqib told this scribe that the hospital received an X-ray plant from a Swiss non-government organisation under the Kalam Integrated Development Project about ten years ago. However, the X-ray plant is awaiting installation. “We took up the issue with authorities several times, but to no avail.”

Further, two boy schools — one high and the other higher secondary — had been functioning without principals for the last two years. There is only one girls’ middle school in Kalam, with only two teachers, only one of whom is a graduate.

Mushtaq, General Manager Sarhad Tourism Development Corporation (STDC), told TNS that the STDC had set up three rest houses and one information centre (Landakai area) in Swat. He said the government was mulling the setting up of mobile medical units in tourist hotspots.

“Revival of tourism in Swat depends on talks between the government and militants, and the media can also play an important role,” he said.

The checkposts set up by the army have also drawn local people’s ire, as they believe the thorough checking by the troops has also damaged tourism. The army has set up around 14 checkposts in various areas of the district, right from Taliban stronghold Imamdheri to Kalam, while on Mingora-Kalam road there are nine checkposts, one each at Fizzagat, Gulibagh, Khwazakhela, Shamad (Khwazakhela), Baghdheri, Fatehpur, Tirat, Madyan and Bahrain.

The checkposts and countless sandbagged bunkers on the Mingora-Kalam road give an impression as if the area is a war zone, provoking fears among the visiting tourists.

Though Madyan, Bahrain and Kalam have remained undisturbed, troops in large numbers are present on the checkposts and motorists are made to wait for checking.

The people of Madyan, Bahrain and Kalam said they were fed up with grilling and wait for long hours at the checkposts. Some even accused the personnel manning the checkposts of discouraging the tourists from visiting Bahrain and Kalam, and ‘advising’ them to visit a peaceful area, as people of this area were ‘extremists’.

The hotel, trade and transport associations of Kalam have demanded that the government must order a removal of these checkposts till August 14. “Otherwise they would observe the Independence Day as ‘black day’.”

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