Pakistan has for a long time, been a favoured destination for travellers and tourists alike. In the 1990s, Pakistan was a tourism hot spot in south Asia, inspiring travel across the country. The rich tapestry of the country, ranging from its wind-swept plains to its snow-covered peaks, the country has something for everyone who loves natural landscapes that take one’s breath away. In recent times, there has been a concerted effort to reclaim the glory years of Pakistani tourism industry, albeit with a focus on promoting local culture and eco-tourism, in order to build a sustainable tourism infrastructure.
Over the years, some places and destinations have become synonymous with a high traffic of visitors during the summer season. This has led to an access burden on the local resources, not to mention, disrupting the ecosystem and eroding the natural balance. In order to mitigate this negative effect and to promote tourism, the Government of Pakistan has embarked on a dual mission of promoting a ‘green ecotourism’ and improving the local infrastructure in order to support and prop up the tourism sector.
A recent example of that has been the nation-wide tree plantation drive, headed by Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change. The initiative aims to plant 10 billion trees across the country by 2023. The stated goal is to revive forest and wildlife resources in Pakistan, to improve the overall conservation of the existing protected areas; encourage eco-tourism, community engagement and job creation through conservation.”
Traditionally, Gilgit areas have seen the bulk of visitors during the summer season. Many people are not aware of other beautiful locales that are one of the best-kept secret in the travel industry. One such area that has been gaining traction, mainly through word-of-mouth praise has been the heavenly Neelum Valley.
Popularly known as the ‘Pearl of the Neelum Valley’, Kel is a town in Azad Jammu and Kashmir that tests the limits of endurance and patience of those wanting to visit. But once you get there, all wordly worries and gripes evaporate as you bask in the ethereal beauty of the place.
The mesmeric Neelum Valley, called by many as ‘Heaven on Earth’, is stretched in the shape of bow over a distance of 240 km in the northeast of Muzaffarabad. Known for its scenic beauty, pleasant weather, waterfalls, high mountains and lush green valleys, it is a place out of someone’s dreams. The Neelum River slices through the valley, pock-marked with jaw-dropping locales that are thronging with tourists during peak season. The destinations in the region most popular with tourists include the historic Sharda Town, Ratti Gali Lake, Chitta Khatta Lake, Patlain Lake, Keran, Upper Neelum, Kutton, Jagran, Baboon Valley, Arang Kel and Toabutt.
Surrounded by lofty pine trees, snow-capped mountain peaks, and lush green meadows and overflowing with gorgeous flowers during the spring time, the area seems to have been etched on canvas by an artist. Such is the beauty of Kel that it is preferred spot for camping under the stars for many travelers. For those who prefer a good night’s rest though, there is no need to worry as there are quite a few hotels and guest homes in the region that accommodate to families. The stunning blue Lund Sar Lake, as well as a few spectacular waterfalls, are located in this settlement.
In recent times, there has been a conscious effort to revive sustainable tourism. In that regard, the need for creating arrangements for visitors to the area have been put in place.
In 2014, only 114 guest houses were registered in Neelum Valley. That number grew to 314 by 2016 but there was still a long way to go. By the end of 2018, a list compiled by the tourism department, revealed that the number of guest houses in the area had reached 520. While the number does not do justice to the justice to the huge numbers of tourists that converge on Neelum Valley, a seasonal tourist destination, having peak season from May to September, it is still a step in the right direction.
The numbers dwindle down considerably during the winters when very few tourists visit due to the harsh weather and snowfall.
In this regard, to make up for the lack of infrastructure, the government of AJK has been investing a major part of its development budget for the construction of roads and building other infrastructure, mainly in those areas with major tourist attractions. Thus, to improve and develop tourism effectively, a 190-kilometre-long ‘tourism corridor’ is underway, which will connect four districts — Muzaffarabad, Jehlum Valley, Bagh and Rawlakot, thereby providing a seamless avenue of for visitors and tourists to travel and see the beauty of the region. The Government of Pakistan has provided a seed grant of eight billion rupees while the government, has also sought investment in the major road network improvement project, to strengthen public-private partnership in the emerging business opportunities in the region. In this regard, the government has adopted an unprecedented ordinance to promote tourism through public-private partnerships. The AJK Tourism Promotion Ordinance 2019 is the first of its kind which, as claimed by senior government officials, “would enable the tourism department to lease out land or buildings to private investors in the territory, to establish lodging facilities for tourists in different areas of AJK.”
A positive trend in this area has been the involvement of some non-governmental organisations that have also joined hands with the government to promote tourism, by skill building and providing financial assistance to locals, enabling them to maximise their gains from the emerging business. Examples include the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF), the Himalayan Wildlife Foundation (HWF) and the Akhuwat Foundation, which launched a collaborative project to train 100 local families in tourism and hospitality management, and to provide them interest-free loans to renovate the extra space of their homes to rent out as guest rooms to travellers.
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