Exploring up north

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The Covid-19 pandemic saw Pakistanis explore the picturesque northern regions of the country such as Hunza and Naran in droves

By Atifuddin Khan

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Published: Sat 14 Aug 2021, 12:00 AM

The current pandemic threw challenges at the Pakistani tourism industry like never before. Apart from the lockdowns and the social distancing protocols, Covid-19 also proved to be a boon for the tourist sector in Pakistan.

For years the north of Pakistan has been the country’s main tourist arena. Mostly facilitated by rudimentary road networks and boarding accommodations that at best are described as bed and breakfast, the tourist sector has been facilitated by weekend getaways. For people taking off to explore on long weekends, looking for cheaper options, an opportunity to get away from the city, the northern areas provided the perfect opportunity. However, with the pandemic, opportunities came.

As international borders closed, summer holidays were right around the corner. Schools too wrapped up their pending academic year and with the pandemic adding to stress levels, people started looking for alternative destinations. Many had to cancel their international vacations due to lockdowns in other countries as well. That left people with the only option available — exploring Pakistan. Though domestic travel restrictions at first were tough — ban on interprovincial travel, sealed cities and regions — but slowly as the government got to grips with the situation, things started to open.

We took a chance as a family as well. But before going, planning seemed like a dicey affair. My last visit up north was with college friends in the last century. Back then it was us boys and cheap hotels. Expensive options included international chains. Pakistani-owned accommodations were so rudimentary that one needed contacts to get a decent bed and breakfast. Heck, at the time, the key tourist junction of Naran didn’t even have electricity! It now has international food chains. Work life and the opportunity to explore foreign regions left me without any reason to travel up to the mountains.

So, it was with some help from Booking.com (which was a surprise) and some feedback from regular northerners, we took a leap of faith, first with the domestic airlines, then with the accommodation. The best way to explore the north of Pakistan is to hire locals; a driver plus a tour guide, someone who knows the right ways. Luckily, we bumped into one from Haroon Tours & Guides. He picked us from Islamabad airport and stayed with us through the length and breadth of the tour.

The flight to the nation’s capital was a revelation as well. The medical restrictions had done away with the in-flight service. We were served meals in to-go boxes that were then discarded in a bag the size of a human! This was the last time I had a meal in a flight. Waiting for an alternative in the ‘new-normal’. Hand sanitiser was in plenty supply. Most people still wore masks, some out of fear, some out of respect. But old habits die hard. As soon as the flight landed, the masks were off and so was social distancing.

With two young kids in tow, our travel up north was broken into legs of two nights, three days. In Islamabad, it was a night in the nation’s capital. The next day, we were onward to Naran, and then to Hunza. The first wonderful revelation was the state of the road network. Coming from Karachi’s potholed-filled thoroughfares, we were expecting worse. It wasn’t to be. The N-35 motorway is really a marvel in the sense it has provided uninterrupted access all the way to the Chinese border, connecting some of the crown jewels of Pakistani tourism. Our destination took us to Hunza. Far far away, nearly a 22-hour drive straight from the capital, we did stop at Naran, pass by Babusar Top, stopped at Jaglot Village (confluence of three mountain ranges of Himalya, Karakoram and Hindu Kush), a signboard that signals the point where the Eurasian and Indian continental plates collided 55 million years ago and then to Karimabad and its picturesque serenity. There is of course the Hussaini Hanging Bridge. Another revelation was the quality of hotels. There are still the Rs2,500 per night accommodations. However, with customer demand, the quality of hotels has improved. An example is Luxus Atabad. A further one-hour drive from Karimabad, the hotel offers stunning views with a price in excess of $125 per night. The limited availability of rooms there was testament to the fact that the Pakistani customer is willing to pay top dollar for the right service. The sights of course speak for themselves. It’s the comfort that drives the tourist dollar, and with improved road networks and facilities, people are indeed keen to explore Pakistan.

More recently, this boom was experienced during the recently concluded Eid holidays. On July 30, Former Special Assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan in the capacity of a Minister of State Zulfi Bukhari tweeted that over 2.7 million people visited Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa for the purpose of tourism. This activity led to spending of Rs66.5 billion in the province. Most of it benefited SME businesses.

Further stats from the provincial government spoke of Rs133 billion spent over the four-day Eid holidays during which as many as 720,000 vehicles entered the province for tourism. Social media showed long unending queues of cars. Reports spoke of a hike in fuel prices that reached Rs700 per litre (in the rest of the country is was Rs120). And this is just the north of the country. People have been exploring the restive Balochistan province as well. That is an untapped gold mine of natural wonders. The result has also seen local companies wanting to invest in tourism services. And with the present government pushing for further development of the sector, things are looking up for this long-neglected sector.

We take pride in making each experience worthy of our international travellers

The opportunities that Pakistan can thrive on as a popular destination for travel enthusiasts can come to fruition through the collaborative efforts of the government, the private tourism relevant organisations and authorities, hands on value addition by the locals of the most popular tourist spots and the youth who understand progression, adding to the evolving ecosphere of this industry. Understanding the need to use technology for the correct international representation and marrying it with cultural diversity can help symbolise the country as it deserves to be.

Addressing this growth requirement, one unique online marketplace is www.manaky.com that aims to revolutionise the way people experience the country. Manaky seeks to empower locals with unique talent including artists, musicians, influencers, tour operators, urban and rural craftsmen and recreational service providers by providing an opportunity to deservingly showcase themselves on a platform with a global reach. We reached out to Sulmeen Ansari, Senior Director Strategy at Manaky for her thoughts.

“We are invested in providing an opportunity to travellers, tourists and enthusiasts by unveiling the breath-taking landscape and the unmatched hospitality of Pakistan. We take pride in making each experience worthy of our international travellers. With constant progression and diversity in multiple aspects of international tourism, our systems and processes aim to raise the bar in Pakistan. We instil the same global standards in all our processes for our service providers to consistently provide qualitative and hassle-free arrangement for our travellers, whatever part of the globe they may be coming from,” she says

At Manaky, along with providing assistance to travellers and helping them discover what they have been longing to witness, this online marketplace historically for the first time in Pakistan is providing and enabling locals from both rural and urban areas of the country to be part of tours and experiences. This empowers their ability to facilitate visitors with an in-depth first-hand knowledge of their community and also their individual geographical backgrounds assists them to become part of a mission which is all things Pakistani. A delightful endeavour to be creating jobs for tour guides, operators, hotel staff, people from the transportation sector, craftsmen, artisans, sports guides and many aspiring entrepreneurs.

World-renowned vloggers Luke and Sabrina of Chopstick Travels were completely mesmerised after their first visit to Pakistan. “We travelled to Pakistan with Manaky and left with so much more than we could have imagined. We have recommended Manaky to our friends within the professional travel community, and will continue to do so. This amazing team made our first trip to Pakistan unforgettable, and we are looking forward to returning to Pakistan with Manaky very soon (and to eat a mountain of biryani),” said Luke and Sabrina.

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