Lack of tourists affects livelihoods across quake zone

Local people who used to make their living from tourism in parts of northern Pakistan have been affected by a serious slump in trade since the South Asian earthquake struck in October last year.

Waheed, 32, absent-mindedly twists a piece of paper in one hand as he sits by a winding hillside path in the mountain town of Naltar, in the Kaghan Valley in North West Frontier Province (NWFP), about 230 km north of the capital, Islamabad.

The path leads up to the magical, turquoise-watered Saiful Muluk Lake, set amidst some of the world's highest mountains and famed for the age-old legend of love that tells the story of Prince Saiful Muluk, who fell in love with a fairy of the lake.

But this year, although it is a Saturday, the familiar throng of tourists who used to make their way up to the lake on horseback, by jeep and on foot, is not present. In fact the entire Kaghan area, a major draw for tourists throughout the summer months, seems almost deserted.

"It's a disaster. After the 8 October quake, many roads have been damaged and businesses destroyed. No one is coming this year," explained Waheed, a horseman, who supports his wife and three children by giving rides to tourists. He earns most of his annual income during the months of June, July and August, when schools in Pakistan's major urban centres close for the holidays.

A government survey in March 2006 found that around 90,000 people in the quake region depend totally or partially on tourism for their livelihood.

This year, he has not bothered to acquire a horse, and bring it up to the hills. "We all know there will be no tourism this year – and perhaps for some years to come."

There are hundreds of others who have been put out of work by the quake. In the Kaghan Valley, one of the areas worst affected by the quake, and where roads remain in bad condition, these include jeep drivers, owners of motels, inns and cafes, guides, fishermen who sell trout, horsemen and the waiters, chefs and dishwashers annually employed by hotels as guests fill rooms.

"Look, the beauty is still here. The river still flows, and the trout swim. But there are no anglers, no tourists, no photographers – no one but us. How will we survive?" asked Murad Khan, 56, a local guide who usually spends his summers in and around Naltar.

The situation is similar across quake-devastated areas of northern Pakistan and Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

The Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC), in a March damage assessment report, said that out of 154 hotels in the quake-hit areas of North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Pakistani-administered Kashmir, 110 were destroyed in the earthquake.

Many believe it could be a long time before the tourist traffic to the region returns. A Pakistan government taskforce on tourism recommended early in 2006 that people employed in the industry in the quake-hit areas be granted soft loans and grants. Efforts to revive the tourist sector began soon after the quake – but it may take several years before the trade returns to anything nearing pre-quake levels.

Ironically, even the areas that were expected to attract tourist trade as a result of devastation in the Kaghan and the Neelum Valleys in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, have done badly this year. These include areas such as the Murree hills north of Islamabad, and the Swat Valley further north – which escaped with little damage during the quake.

"People have been terrorised by the quake and the images shown on television. They just want to stay away from all mountain areas," said Gohar Rehman, a hotel manager in the tourist town of Nathiagali, 40 km north of Murree.

Though people have filtered into the popular hillside holiday resort, the numbers filling hotels and inns is smaller than usual.

Waheed said he would soon have no choice but to forsake the beauty of Naltar for the uncertainties of the city.

"We just have to think about how to survive, and whether we will have to leave our homes to go to towns elsewhere so we can find work and put food in the mouths of our children."