Tourists flock to northern Pakistan region hit by COVID-19 curbs

Bordering Afghanistan and China, Gilgit-Baltistan is Pakistan’s favorite tourist destination

  
Tourists look at the city view from the Daman-e-Koh viewing point in Islamabad, Pakistan August 3, 2017.

Tourists look at the city view from the Daman-e-Koh viewing point in Islamabad, Pakistan August 3, 2017.

Reuters/Faisal Mahmood
GILGIT-BALTISTAN: Things are looking up for the scenic, mountainous region of Gilgit-Baltistan in northern Pakistan, with over 1 million visitors registered since May, officials say, as the tourism sector reopens across the country despite persisting coronavirus fears.

Bordering Afghanistan and China, Gilgit-Baltistan is Pakistan’s favorite tourist destination and was listed by Forbes among the 10 “coolest places” to visit in 2018.

The region’s economy is largely dependent on tourism and was severely hit last year as outbreaks of COVID-19 and travel curbs deterred tourists from flocking to the region’s glacial lakes, valleys and 8,000-meter-plus peaks.

“This year, we have opened the sector from early May,” Iqbal Hussain, a director at the Gilgit-Baltistan Tourism Department, told Arab News. “We recorded 1 million tourists by July 15.”

In 2020, the sector opened for less than three months, between August and October, and 600,000 people visited, Hussain said.

Despite the improved numbers this year, the specter of another lost tourism season still haunts the region, as coronavirus cases have once again started to surge and authorities are scrambling to impose health rules and standard operating procedures (SOPs).

In mid-July, a coronavirus positivity rate of 16 percent was recorded in Gilgit-Baltistan. Lagging vaccination rates in the region have added to the pressure. “Due to COVID-19, we are facing a lot of challenges,” Hussain said.

“Some 60-70 percent of people are directly linked with this sector. To continue socioeconomic activities, it’s very important to open the tourism sector with the implementation of SOPs.”

Ahead of the Eid Al-Adha holidays, Pakistan’s central pandemic response body, the National Command Operation Center (NCOC), made vaccination certificates mandatory for tourists to book hotels in northern regions in the country.

“We are trying to implement SOPs at all entry points like airports,” Dr. Shah Zaman, the lead official for pandemic response in Gilgit-Baltistan, said, saying the COVID-19 positivity rate had been increasing in the region since last week.

But this has not deterred visitors from coming to this region.

But this has not deterred travel-hungry visitors such as retired Pakistan Air Force official Muhammad Saleem Khan. “This is my first visit to Gilgit-Baltistan,” the 71-year-old tourist said. “It’s such a beautiful place.”

Sidra Humayun, 29, said she had come with her family to tour the region only for a week but decided to stay longer: “Our plan was to return after one week, but after coming here we have decided to celebrate Eid Al-Adha here.”

Many who visit vow to return.

“I have visited Gilgit-Baltistan many times. And I am here again because it’s a beautiful place,” said Taimur Shahid, a 31-year-old-tourist from Karachi. “The mountains are majestic, and it’s a wonderful place to come and escape city life. And each time you get here, you feel lucky. Inshallah, I will come again.”

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