Hunza — Syed Mehdi Bukhari
Hunza — Syed Mehdi Bukhari

Keep the north pure, not for Rosie, but for us and our future generations

As tourists, we need to respect the places we visit, especially when they're in our untouched north.
03 Jul, 2021

There is no power that unites Pakistan as strongly as an outsider pointing out our flaws. Not only do we instantly band together but we also become extremely defensive and often cannot see the rationale behind their thoughts or their interest in our wellbeing.

Last week, a solo female motorcycle adventure traveller took to Instagram and shared a few pictures from her recent trip to Hunza and other areas up north, calling out "local tourists" for "destroying the culture" in Hunza.

“As tourism rises in Pakistan, especially local tourists, there is a growing problem that needs to be IMMEDIATELY addressed before it’s too late. Since Covid happened and travelling outside the country has decreased, there’s been an influx of people flocking north. But instead of bringing just their smiles and leaving only good memories, they are bringing bad behaviours, drugs, vulgarity, rave parties and leaving a lot of TRASH!” Rosie Gabrielle posted.

Among other things, she said that coming to a sacred land and feeling privileged and entitled to destroy it is not okay. But where did Rosie go wrong?

If you read her post without any context or preconceived notions, she has a point. There is nothing good about people feeling entitled to pollute and destroy a place that so many call home. For many, a vacation up north is a getaway from reality but for the people who live there, it is their home and sanctuary.

When tourists visit, they forget that. Spending a few bucks to stay in a place doesn’t give anyone the right to pollute it. And it’s not just the citizens of the north that local tourists need to be more mindful for — it’s for everyone!

Tourism in Pakistan is limited because of lack of infrastructure — some of the most picturesque and beautiful places in the north are not accessible by road. Their beauty, perhaps, has been preserved because they remain untouched by the general public, who continue to pollute what they have access to.

Then there are other places like Kumrat Valley and Neelam Valley that are harder to get to and hence their natural beauty remains. Easy access to Nathiagali, Naran, Gilgit and Hunza means a higher number of local tourists visiting these places and that’s great. That, however, should not mean these places must lose their charm because of pollution.

It’s true: tourists are polluting the north

Many people have raised their concerns about the north being polluted every summer long before Rosie did. And regardless of how much she is bashed or for how long we close our eyes, the reality is that tourists have been polluting the north for years. I remember visiting Lake Saif-ul-Mulook early in the summer before the season had officially begun in 2015 and the lake was as clean and stunning as any in Switzerland. Later that summer, someone posted a photograph of the same lake on Facebook and the difference in what I saw was heartbreaking.

Sardar Hassan, the owner and managing director at Hotel Elites in Nathiagali and Hunza, told Images that pollution is one of the greatest challenges in the north. “I began managing Elites 10 years ago and since then tourism has increased tremendously, which is a great news. However, this has come at the cost of a massive increase in pollution.”

Reiterating what Rosie said in her post, Hassan said tourists come with their families and friends to enjoy themselves but pollute the place and throw garbage in public spaces before they head back. "It’s frustrating for all of us who are working hard to make sure these places remain beautiful and continue to serve as a getaway for people,” he said.

But it's not just a pollution issue — it eventually leads to climate change too, said Hassan. “Advocacy and media campaigns can help people become more aware of the need to be mindful about not contributing to pollution and eventually climate change. Perhaps more trash bins can be installed, and we should as a nation, begin using recyclable items,” he said, while talking about ways to control pollution.

A scenic view of Ayun Valley, Chitral. — Dawn
A scenic view of Ayun Valley, Chitral. — Dawn

Zahid Khan, a local driver in Skardu, told Images that when the lockdown was eased last year, tourists flocked to Skardu. “The tourism industry and people who rely on tourists to earn their livelihoods had been suffering since the season began in March, so it was a relief to welcome them, giving us an opportunity to earn as well. Unfortunately, when they come, they don’t treat our home like theirs. They pollute, litter and leave. I just wish their influx didn’t mean ruining the beauty of our land,” he said.

Lack of waste disposal systems

Pakistan Tourism Development Cooperation Managing Director Aftabur Rehman Rana said that there is no doubt that with the influx of tourists, pollution has increased in the mountains. “This is particularly due to lack of proper waste management systems in small towns and tourists littering the place on their visits. The PTDC, as a federal body, is working with the provincial government organisations to build a mechanism that manages these destinations," he explained.

"KP and Gilgit Baltistan are in the process of developing their tourist destination management plans and in these plans, waste management is the top priority.”

He also mentioned that the PTDC is working with the Sustainable Tourism Foundation to create awareness among visitors by launching a green tourism campaign through which they provide guidelines to visitors about how they can minimise the negative impact of their travels.

“Our message to everyone traveling up north is to behave as a responsible tourist and take care of the mountains. As the popular saying goes, take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints,” Rana said.

The co-founder of Villa Ayun, a resort in Chitral, Maria ul Mulk, said that people tend to forget that there’s a flip side to the influx of tourists. “When we talk about the huge potential of tourism in the north, we must not overlook the very real environmental impact large-scale/mainstream tourism can have on the these ecologically fragile areas," she explained.

"These regions are not ideal for mass tourism — they would fare better if they were designated, say, specialised tourism zones with a focus on high end/adventure tourism (rock climbing, off-roading, polo, rafting, hiking, paragliding etc). Such a model would add to the local economy without putting a strain on the region’s natural resources or infrastructure,” she suggested.

Mulk, who studied Public Administration at Columbia University, said that without proper solid waste management systems in place, increased tourism and unplanned development puts a strain on existing infrastructure. “You see hotels popping up in every tourist hotspot in the north — but how many of them actually have waste disposal systems? What happens to the heaps of plastic that accumulate in such areas? And why is there not a single formal recycling facility in the north?" she asked.

"Can a simple tax help fund garbage disposal/waste management systems for tourists? In the era of social media, it’s very easy to promote the natural beauty of such regions but what are we doing to protect these regions once there is a huge influx from outside?” she questioned.

Pack some cultural mindfulness while traveling

Another impact of an increase in tourism is that tourists often lack cultural mindfulness, resulting in ruining the culture up north. Mulk told Images that there is a dire need to promote not just tourism but "responsible and sustainable" tourism — one that not only leaves little carbon footprint, but also respects the local culture and heritage. “This is the very thought that pushed me to start Villa Ayun — as a blueprint of sort for sustainable tourism.”

There is no denying the fact that people in the north are in many ways more openminded than others living in the country. Thanks to years of visitors coming from different cultures and nationalities, these people have been conditioned to become more accepting and less judgmental. They don’t stare at you, they don’t care what you are wearing, and they don't make you feel uncomfortable while interacting. All they care about is making sure you have a good time; whether it’s a driver or a tour guide or a member of the hotel staff; their smiles and hearts are big enough to accept differences and open their homes to visitors.

While all of that is great, it does put a lot of responsibility on tourists to be mindful of their culture while traveling up north. Packing some cultural mindfulness is a great idea not just for the north but for anywhere in the world.

Is the north ready for raves?

One of the posts in Rosie’s series was a photograph of a rave that became the topic of heated debate and much criticism. Many people slammed the organisers and attendees of the party for "bringing drugs" to the region.

But Syed Surush Kamil, a resident of Gilgit who works at a development organisation begs to differ. “Drug abuse and vulgarity is not becoming common in Gilgit because of a music party and blaming one single party for pollution and drug use is baseless because these issues have been there for decades,” he reasoned.

Many people understandably took issue with Rosie's use of the word "vulgarity" in her post. Surush questioned the definition of vulgarity. “A 12-year-old was raped and killed in Ishkomen Valley the same day this music party was being hosted in upper Hunza. Where is the outrage on social media? Which of the two is vulgar to you?” he asked.

Trash in Swat — Photo by Maha Qasim
Trash in Swat — Photo by Maha Qasim

Syed Abdul Haseeb, the DJ at the much talked about ‘rave’, denies it was a rave at all. He told Images it was a three-day music festival that included local bands and traditional extinct instruments that have been documented for a documentary on lost musical instruments. “The other two days were an electronic day and a pop/hiphop music day. Calling it a rave would be incorrect. My take would be that such events pose a way for cultural exchange, awareness of local arts and adding to the economy of that place,” he said.

He explained that the event had a no drug policy and the consumption of any drugs was done on an individual level. “The event cannot be blamed for the use of drugs. Music festivals across the world face the same issues on drugs. The local Passu security team even checked people at the door."

There are, of course, two sides to every story. Ehsan Ali Asghar recently traveled to Hunza and was quite shocked to see how common drugs and parties have become up the north. He raised a very important question during his conversation with Images. “What questions will these things raise in the minds of children of the north? It may create a divide between their aspirational culture and their reality and families. Why is no one thinking about this?” he asked.

Those against raves said they can happen anywhere, so why choose the mountains? Why lock a few young people in a dark room with loud music and booze up north when that can be done anywhere?

Haseeb, however, believes that music is art, and the mountains have a vibe unlike any other place on Earth. “A blend of nature and music in a responsible way should not be looked at negatively as the conservative neighbours of Hunza and Rosie did.”

According to him, the locals were very happy with the music festival as businesses were open 24 hours and all hotels were booked. “This even brought a huge amount of tourism in the area, driving the local economy. And Hunzai culture is very different from other GB cultures. They love singing and dancing publicly whereas other parts of GB are conservative.”

“A blend of nature and music in a responsible way should not be looked at negatively as the conservative neighbours of Hunza and Rosie did.”

Hassan of Hotel Elites, however, told Images that people living in the north are uncomfortable with raves and parties. “They conflict with their values. Besides that, they lead to noise pollution and violence, stealing the north of its sanctuary.”

He said there should be a clear distinction between raves and musical evenings. “There is no harm in a musical evening or festival, if managed properly, keeping the noise level low and being mindful of the locals and their sentiments. In fact, we should promote local heritage dance and musical festivals, etc so that tourists can experience the true values of the north.”

The public will likely always be divided on the issue of parties of this nature in Pakistan but perhaps the takeaway from this incident is that regardless of what you're doing up north, you have to keep our mountains clean. Visiting any place means respecting its people and land — and leaving trash behind is no way to pay people back for welcoming you to their home with open arms and hearts.