Coronavirus travel bans boost Pakistan’s domestic tourism

Worldwide coronavirus travel bans, exploration of new tourist destinations and infrastructure development have boosted Pakistan’s domestic tourism, with millions of local visitors thronging to the country’s scenic north and northwest this summer.

A record of more than 5.5 million tourists, mainly local, visited the majestic mountains, lush-green plateaus and picturesque valleys in the northern Gilgit-Baltistan region, which borders neighboring China, and northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, bordering Afghanistan, despite the coronavirus pandemic during this tourist season

In KP alone, nearly 4 million tourists visited the famous tourist destinations of Swat, Chitral, Nathiagali Abbottabad, Kaghan and Naran in Mansehra from May to September, according to Latifur Rehman Khan, a spokesman for the KP tourism department.

Beautiful Swat valley, also known as the Switzerland of Pakistan, remained the favorite site visited by more than 1.5 million people this year.

Khan told Anadolu Agency a significant increase in domestic tourism is the outcome of infrastructure development at tourist sites, with several projects underway to provide facilities to international standards for tourists.

More than 1.5 million tourists, mainly local, have visited Gilgit-Baltistan during the summer season, which is 30% higher than the previous year’s figures, said Raja Nasir Khan, the region’s Minister for Tourism.

“Our tourist season is still ongoing. The autumn and winter seasons are ahead, and we hope the number of tourists by the end of this year will be double than the yesteryear,” Khan told Anadolu Agency.

Boom in aviation industry

Tens of thousands of affluent Pakistanis, who otherwise would travel to Europe, the Middle East, Far East and other worldwide destinations to spend holidays, are another addition to the growing number of domestic tourists.

Yahya Polani, Chairman of President of All Pakistan Travel Agencies Association, confirmed that international travel, including for tourism purposes, has come to a grinding halt since the coronavirus pandemic hit the globe.

But local air travel has picked up this year, particularly during the tourist season, giving a sigh of relief to the otherwise dying local aviation industry, Polani told Anadolu Agency.

"There has been an extraordinary increase in local air travel this year due to rising domestic tourism. All the companies, which used to offer international tourism packages, are now taking their clients to Gilgit, Skurdu, Swat Chitral and other destinations in big numbers," he said.

"Credit goes to the prime minister (Imran Khan) who has personally focused on tourism promotion," said Polani, adding that the boom in domestic tourism has saved thousands of jobs in the aviation industry.

To cope with the growing number of tourists, state-run Pakistan International Airlines, for the first time recently launched direct flights from different cities, including the southern port city of Karachi to the Gilgit-Baltistan region.

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Panoramic Pakistan

Pakistan, undoubtedly, is one of a handful of countries that offer a unique blend of history and biodiversity to eco-lovers.

From the snow-capped peaks in the north and glistening waters in the south, together with limitless opportunities to watch wildlife, sail in the mighty Indus river, and deep-sea diving in the Arabian Sea, this South Asian nuclear state has much more to attract eco-lovers.

The northern Gilgit-Baltistan region, which borders China, is home to the six peaks of more than 8,000-meter (26,250-foot) altitude, including the world’s second tallest peak, K-2.

In addition, the region has more than 5,000 large and small glaciers and over 100 lakes, which jointly make up the world’s largest freshwater reservoir.

Also, eco-lovers can witness the endangered snow leopard and brown bear, in addition to 300 species of wildlife in the breathtaking region.

One can sail the Indus to witness blind dolphins — also known as Indus dolphins

Toward the mountains such as in Khunjerab National Park in Gilgit-Baltistan, there are guaranteed sightings of the Himalayan Ibex and if one travels to northwestern Chitral near the Afghanistan border, then markhor — the country’s national animal.

There are opportunities to watch wildlife, marine turtles nesting near Karachi together with very approachable Kirthar and Hingol National Parks in southern Sindh and southwestern Balochistan provinces, offering a mix of history and biodiversity.

Newly discovered Kumrat, a breathtaking valley that sits near the Afghanistan border has become a favorite spot for tourists because of its glistening blue lakes and lush-green plateau in recent years.

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"I have visited many countries across the world but believe me the natural beauty I have seen here (Kumrat) is unique and amazing," Sadiq Khan, a Dubai-based Pakistani told Anadolu Agency.

"I had heard about the beauty of this valley and wished to visit here. Finally, I am here," he said, smiling.

A 50 kilometers (31 miles) road that leads to the Kumrat valley from Dir district requires major repairs and reconstruction. It is muddy and bumpy.

"This tourist spot can change the locals’ lives and economy if a new road is built together with some other infrastructure development," said Dr. Fahim Shakir, who works at a government hospital in Dir.

Bilal Athar, a Karachi-based businessman, who used to spend holidays abroad before the pandemic, has nothing but praise for the spectacular Neelam valley of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, also known as Azad Kashmir.

"I had never been there before. It’s beautiful beyond my expectations," Athar told Anadolu Agency. Along with friends, he visited the valley for the first time in August.

"I know we are not the only ones who have explored Pakistan’s own beauty for the first time. Thousands of others have done this during the past two years," he said. “My message to those who travel abroad to spend holidays, is (that) forget about abroad; Pakistan is simply magnificent in terms of tourism."

Religious tourism

Pakistan is just 70 years old, but it is situated in a region that has been home to the world’s three major religions — Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism — for centuries.

The South Asian Muslim state hosts scores of revered pilgrimage sites — dating 5,000 years — for not only the followers of the three religions but from some pre-historic religions such as Aryan, Barhaman and ancient Iranian and Greek religions.

Nearly 70,000 Sikhs from neighboring India, and across the world, visited their religious sites, mainly Kartarpur sahib — the birthplace of Baba Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion – this year.

KP — once a child poster for terrorism and suicide bombings — is home to 70% of sites in the country sacred to Sikhs and Buddhists. Whereas, Punjab, the country’s most populous province, and southern Sindh province also host several sites linked to the three religions.

Once known as the heart of the Gandhara civilization, Takhtbai or Takht-i-Bhai (throne of origins) — a small scenic town located 160 kilometers (99 miles) from the capital of Islamabad — is the most visited site by Buddhists.

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