Balochistan tourism industry shattered by insecurity
QUETTA: Once a vibrant tourist resort, the past two years of political turmoil have meant Quetta today finds its tourism industry collapsing. Not only has the number of foreigners visiting ‘Little London’, as the provincial capital was once billed, declined dramatically, but even domestic tourists, keen to witness Quetta and Ziarat’s ‘white Christmas’, are now a rare sight here.
“Balochistan had great attraction for national and international tourists over the years. It is distinct geographically and ethnically. Families used to visit Quetta and its suburbs for shopping as well for the cheap dry fruits and other goods,” Shamaeel Zafar, public relations manager at Quetta’s Serena Hotel, told Daily Times.
But a low level insurgency has shattered the tourism industry, and with the government declaring 2007 to be ‘Visit Pakistan Year’ – it hopes to attract one million foreign tourists this year - the province is unprepared to meet the challenge.
“It is not as if Balochistan lacks tourist attractions. In the past, Europeans used to come in extremely large numbers and camp in Quetta. Domestic tourists used to pour in in the thousands and the hotels used to be overcrowded,” recollects veteran journalist Siddiq Baluch.
There was a significant tourism boom in Balochistan in the late 1970s. 1979 was the year of the Islamic Revolution of Iran and the Communist invasion of Afghanistan. American and European countries strongly recommended their citizens not to travel to these two neighbours of Pakistan, and Quetta became a centre for observation by foreigners of the socio-economic and political developments in the two countries next door. There has been a ban on foreigners visiting Balochistan for over 150 years, but it is largely ignored by officials. Insecurity is the largest contributing factor to the decline in tourism in Balochistan. “August 26 [when Nawab Akbar Bugti was killed] was Balochistan’s 9/11,” says Yahya Jaffar, sales manager of Serana.
Ironically, he adds, the actual 9/11 had a hugely positive impact on Balochistan’s hotels. “With the commencement of the Afghan war, Quetta, Chaman and some other border regions of the province transformed into a media hub. We even ran out of rooms and we had to convert some of the office rooms into bedrooms for the foreigners who travelled to Balochistan,” Jaffar recollects, adding that many people rented out their houses to foreign journalists at extortionate prices.
Everything changed with the assassination of Akbar Bugti. “The aftermath of the Bugti killing and the eruption of spontaneous violence were unforgettable. People rushed in huge numbers to escape from Balochistan,” recalls Zahid Baig, station manager of the Karachi-based Shaheen Air. “Since then, people have hesitated to travel to Balochistan.”
There have been tourists-friendly developments over the past few years. For instance, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) was once the only carrier operating from Quetta, but private airline companies started operating here too. However, they have not had much success here.
Asked why Shaheen Air only runs flights from Quetta to Lahore, and not, say, from Quetta to Gwadar, Baig said: “Unless you maintain peace in the province you can’t move forward. There is complete uncertainty for investors. You don’t know what is likely to happen the next day.”
Air Blue, another private airline, started services to Quetta two years in February 2005, running seven flights a week from Quetta to Karachi. The airline found that planes from Quetta to Karachi were full, but empty on the return journey. It has now reduced the number of weekly flights to four.
“Although the induction of private airlines has provided more options for passengers and engendered an atmosphere of competition among the companies, the political situation has reversed all these positive indicators,” Air Blue’s District Manager Muhammad Kamaran told Daily Times.
“Things still refuse to normalise. People are reluctant to come to Quetta despite a considerable decline in terrorist attacks in the province,” says Baig. At the same time, hotels in Quetta have tightened their security in the wake of a fresh wave of suicide bombings in the country. Quetta has been termed a hub of Taliban activities by the Western media, and Western countries have advised their citizens not to travel to the region.
“There is a preconceived notion about Balochistan being a centre of terrorist activities. So, we have tightened security arrangements,” Serena’s Shamaeel says.
Given the negatives, many feel government efforts to bring tourists to the province are unlikely to succeed. “Balochistan is a land of very hospitable people and rich culture, but who would like to visit the province where the newspapers and TV channels are replete with reports about rocket attacks and bomb blasts in the province?” asks Jaffar. He says several organisations have decided to postpone events in Quetta because of insecurity.