As the government strives to promote tourism in the country mainly in Azad Kashmir, the civil society too has stepped in and is playing its part in the promotion of tourism, with the focus on passing the benefit to the local community.
The bulk of the tourists that visit the northern parts of the country are from Karachi and Lahore.
“Life is really stressful in Karachi. So we save money to detoxify ourselves physically and mentally after two to three years by visiting Azad Kashmir and other northern parts of the country,” said Mohammad Aqeel, a graphic designer, who was visiting Neelum Valley after learning about the place on various social media forums.
“We have been to almost all known places, but visiting Neelum Valley after a 12-hour journey is worth it. You can still see traces of snow around Sharda even in May,” he added. According to AJK government figures, one million tourists visited the region in 2018 and around half of them went to Neelum Valley. More are expected in the season starting after Eid. However, despite the rush of tourists to the valley, most tourist spots including Sharda are under-equipped to handle the massive rush.
Several NGOs led by Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF) have joined hands to empower the locals to tap the potentials of tourism.
“Based on some international experiences we tried this idea in Gilgit-Baltistan. Now we are implementing the same in Neelum Valley,” Neelum Azmat of PPAF said.
“We received reports that people had to spend nights in their cars last year. This made us implement the project here as well,” she added.
There is limited agriculture in the area and due to poverty and lack of opportunities, most men in Neelum Valley work in cities, leaving women to look after themselves and the children.
Under the project, 100 houses were selected by the local partner organisations of PPAF, and they were asked to upgrade the most scenic room as per modern standards where tourists could stay as guests.
“Charges here are lower compared to commercial places but this will benefit the hosts, who are mostly poor. They will earn additional income and gradually become entrepreneurs,” Ms Neelum said, adding that “otherwise these poor men and women would be doing low paid jobs in the growing tourism industry in their area”.
However, there are several conditions attached. The guests will be only families and the room must be part of the house.
The marketing will be done by a firm hired by PPAF.
Seventeen out of 100 such rooms have already become operational and work on up-gradation of 83 houses will begin soon in other areas of Neelum Valley, including Gurez.
“The key focus of the up-gradation is on sanitation as the tourists are most concerned about toilets and clean beds,” Neelum Azmat said.
Another of PPAF’s partner organisation, the Akhuwat Foundation, provided a loan of Rs125,000 for the up-gradation of the rooms, while Himalayan Wildlife Foundation (HWF) provided training to the locals on basic housekeeping and serving etiquette.
“Besides we taught the girls and women how to handle and decline respectfully to any request of taking photographs or the offer to have a cup of tea by male tourists,” retired Brig Sumera Raza, a consultant at HWF, said.
“With improved household income, these women will have the finances to buy LPG instead of relying on firewood only. This will reduce stress on the forest as well,” Brig Raza added.
A new class of travellers has emerged who are not only on the move but also earning by posting their experiences on social media.
One such travel blogger couple is Amtul and Fahad who operate under the name of ‘Patangeer’. They arrived at Neelum Valley ahead of summer season to record their experience of the place.
“We stayed at one such room and it was more than just a holiday. We interacted with the landlady and her children, and ate their local food,” said Amtul.
The AJK government has also taken legislative steps to promote tourism.
AJK Minister for Tourism Mushtaq Minhas said licensing of tourism activities was the authority of AJK Council, and AJK government had no authority to offer incentives and concessions such as tax holidays, mark-up free loan, duty free on tourism-related machinery and equipment.
“Now after constitutional amendments the registration and licensing authority has been transferred to AJK government,” Mr Minhas said, adding that the AJK Hotel & Restaurants Act 2018, AJK Travel Agencies Acts 2018 and the AJK Tour Guides Act 2018 were enacted in April 2019.
The AJK government is proceeding further over the implementation process of new laws that will help promote and regulate the tourism industry.
Originally published in Dawn, May 5th, 2019
All photos have been taken from this article.