The urgency of having a sustainable tourism industry in Gilgit Baltistan

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Who does not like chocolates? One would be considered a lucky person if they get a free chocolate bar every day for the rest of their life. They would be even luckier if the number of chocolate bars is increased to two per day. Even three free chocolate bars a day might be counted as a blessing. However, if the number of chocolates is further increased, let us say, to ten or twenty bars a day, this might make things a bit undesirable for the person’s health. Some possible long-term effects on the human body of consuming too much chocolate could be cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity to name a few. I would now take the liberty to compare chocolate intake in the body with the tourist inflow into Gilgit Baltistan. Who does not like seeing their region being visited by tourists from all over the country and around the world contributing to the local economy? Who does not want their people to get benefitted from the many excellent opportunities that the tourism sector carries with itself? However, just like chocolates and the body’s capacity to handle its intake, there also exists a certain limit for tourist inflow inside our region that has become a major tourist attraction in the recent past. I would further take the liberty to make the assertion which is also the main theme of this article that unless the booming tourism industry in Gilgit Baltistan is controlled and directed in a way that makes it friendly and sustainable for the local ecology as well as the social and economic welfare of the local population, being a consumption-based and natural resource dependent industry, its impacts in the long-run will lead GB’s economy and ecology towards a possibly disastrous situation that will be in no one’s favor.

Sustainable tourism is defined by the UN Environment Program and UN World Tourism Organization as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of the visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”. Thus, in order to ensure that tourism becomes a sustainable industry in Gilgit Baltistan for a long period of time, the provincial government especially the tourism department in the province must take certain actions to ensure that the natural resources, the primary attractions of the region, remain protected and conserved. Moreover, it must also be ensured that the economic, social, and environmental impact of tourism in GB has a positive correlation with the local population. In other words, the tourism industry must prove to be socio-economically beneficial for the local host population. In this article, I will limit myself to three major issues that must be given due attention in order to transform the tourism sector in Gigit Baltistan into a sustainable source of revenue for the local government as well as the local host population.

Tourist Handling Capacity of the Region

It was reported by Arab News in 2021 that over one million tourists visited Gilgit Baltistan in a period of three months, that is, from May to July. The numbers have certainly increased as the Covid-19 threat has now largely diminished and the newly built Juglot Skardu Road (JSR) has made access to Baltistan region much easier, safer, and more comfortable for domestic tourists. Some immediate impacts of this increased inflow of tourists to Baltistan region, that can be observed, are continuously choked traffic in Skardu city that disturbs not just the incoming tourists but also the local residents in the form of noise pollution caused due to honking vehicles, air pollution caused by the smoke emitted from the vehicle exhausts, and inconvenience in movement within the city due to constant traffic jam. Furthermore, high electricity and water demand in the guest houses, resorts, and hotels in a city like Skardu which has already been facing a severe shortage of electricity and water for its local residents is also another negative impact of mass tourist inflow.

It is true that the Gilgit Baltistan government needs to get actively engaged in the process of provision of services to incoming tourists but simultaneously and more importantly, it needs to keep a check on the tourist handling capacity of the region. For instance, the hotels and guest houses in GB might have the capacity of housing one million tourists but the government, at the same time, needs to make sure that if handling such a large number of tourists, who travel in smoke-emitting vehicles, is sustainable for the already fragile ecosystem of the region or not.

In order to have a better idea about checks and limits imposed on tourist inflow around the world, we could consider Barcelona’s case where the local municipality, in order to limit and control the inflow of tourists, imposed a ban on the construction of new hotels in the historic city center. Moreover, a limit had been introduced on the number of cruise ships that can be docked at the city’s ports. Likewise, Venice had also introduced a limit on the access of large cruise ships to the city and Amsterdam had increased taxes on the hotel industry.

Environmental Degradation

It is a well-known fact that the world is experiencing climate change as a result of the rise in global temperature known as global warming. No country, whether developed or not, can boast of being unaffected by climate change. However, it will be the developing countries that will be affected more severely. The present flooding in many parts of Balochistan and the Indus delta, that, unfortunately, have caused hundreds of deaths and massive economic losses to the people as well as the government is a stark reminder that climate change is real and lethal. The recent GLOF events in many parts of Gilgit Baltistan were no doubt impacts of global warming as well. Thus, taking the seriousness and potentially disastrous impact of climate change into account, the government of GB must take prudent measures for the conservation of its real treasure, that is, its natural resources, before it gets too late.

The policy makers must understand that GB’s tourism industry is totally dependent on the durability of its lakes, rivers, meadows, snow-capped mountains, peaks, waterfalls, streams, deserts, plains, and other natural blessings that the region has been bestowed with. As long as these blessings remain conserved and protected, tourism will flourish. However, if unchecked, uncontrolled, and unregulated tourist inflow continues to the region, it will not take much long for the same plains, rivers, streams, peaks and meadows to get exhausted and depleted by too much human interference.

Economic Leakage

Economic leakage refers to the phenomenon in which the major chunk of the revenue generated through tourism in a region, instead of going into the hands of the local residents and businesses, ends up profiting non-local people and businesses. In the context of Gilgit Baltistan, this might be understood as Pearl Continental coming in and establishing its hoteling business in, let us say, Skardu city. There is no doubt that the arrival of PC will generate employment opportunities and thus will benefit the locals in some sort but let us not fool ourselves with that thought. The major chunk of PC’s revenue or profit generated will inevitably be transferred back to, let us say for simplicity’s sake, its headquarters, which certainly is not situated in Gilgit Baltistan. In this way, profit generated by housing incoming tourists, who came to GB primarily due to the natural attractions that it offers drains away from within the region and ends up in the accounts of multi-national corporations instead of circulating within the local market.

The provincial government can play its part in preventing economic leakage or drain by drafting laws that require the incoming businesses to direct a certain portion of their profits for the uplift of the local population. This might be done in several ways, one example of which could be the introduction of educational scholarships for local students. Government taxes on non-local businesses might also be another way to ensure that the money generated from tourism stays within the province and is used for developmental projects.

To conclude, the potential of the tourism industry’s role in the socio-economic development of Gilgit Baltistan in the future is boundless. It undoubtedly is a game changer for the region. However, unless the government intervenes and makes certain laws and policies to ensure that the massive inflow of tourists is regulated and steered in a direction that makes it mutually beneficial in the long-term for the hosts, the incoming tourists, as well as the local ecology, this recent boom might prove to be disastrous for the local environment and the economy.

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