By Zofeen T Ebrahim
“I won’t allow this on my watch,” said an incensed chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B), Hafeez ur Rehman, talking to The Third Pole over the phone from the capital city of Gilgit. He was referring to the recent announcement by Prime Minister Imran Khan in which Khan talked about opening the tourism industry and directed the provincial governments of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and G-B to prepare standard operating procedures in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The prime minister pointed out that the warm months were important for those whose livelihoods are linked to tourism and feared a continued closure could lead to more joblessness.
As coronavirus infections in the country spiked and fatalities increased following a relaxation of the lockdown on 9 May, many were expecting an imposition of a stricter lockdown. In fact, two weeks before the government had eased the lockdown, the Punjab health department had warned of an unprecedented spike in the rate of infections in Lahore alone. “No workplace and residential area of any town is disease-free,” it had warned.
In light of these apprehensions, this decision to further open tourism has raised eyebrows. Some have termed it “crazy” and “insane”.
Putting communities at risk
“He [the prime minister] will be responsible for mass homicide,” said Lahore-based Maria Umar, a social entrepreneur working for financial empowerment of women and who visits the mountainous regions of Pakistan religiously every year.
“Hunza is probably the one place that’s safe from COVID-19 and he [prime minister] is putting the lives of those people at risk by opening tourism! I want to go to the mountains and spend a week camping in Deosai, but what I need to do for myself and others is stay put where I am,” she emphasised. “He is giving a false sense of security to others which is going to end ugly,” Umar warned.
While some in the government will eagerly point to countries in Europe which are reopening tourism hotspots like Rome’s Colosseum and the leaning tower of Pisa, it is important to note that these countries have largely come down from their “peak phases” whereas Pakistan’s is a few weeks away.
Pakistan is now among the world’s top ten countries when it comes to new daily deaths and cases.
Defending the prime minister’s announcement, Aftab Rana, chairman of the National Tourism Recovery Action Committee, said the decision was neither sudden nor out of the blue, but a “well thought-out” one.
“We have been meticulously working on developing a strategy to open up tourism now for the last three months,” he said. He added that the idea is not to open the floodgates for tourists, but allow “controlled tourism” with strict health measures.
He said that stakeholders such as big and small hoteliers to restaurant owners, porters and transporters have been consulted by the government. Even shop owners, tour operators and guides were part of the decision-making, he said.
This was endorsed by Khushal Khan, Secretary Tourism of KP. “Once we get a nod, we will ensure through the district administration and the police that the SOPs (standard operating procedures) are enforced,” he said.
Khan said crowding will be limited both in terms of occupancy in guest rooms and in dining areas of hotels as well as restaurants and no one will be allowed anywhere without masks and gloves. Social distancing and disinfecting guidelines will also be put in place. He said the signage, sign boards and pamphlets for the tourists to follow the rules have already been designed.
But G-B’s chief minister Rehman remained unconvinced. “It is one thing to have these on paper; quite another to implement them on the ground,” he said. “I oppose this emphatically!”
Unfortunately, he said, his term will end on 24 June.
Pakistan on the cusp of tourism boom
The fears expressed by Rehman and others in the travel trade are legitimate. Even in big cities in Pakistan, many of the SOPs in place for public gatherings, shops and mosques have been blatantly violated. Mask wearing and face coverings are far from the norm and commercial centres are crammed with people standing close to one another.
Despite these violations of SOPs and the swelling cases and deaths, the government appears desperate to re-open travel to the mountains. Even pre-COVID-19, Imran Khan was eager to boost tourism in Pakistan’s scenic northern areas, with many speculating that the October 2019 visit of Prince William and Kate Middleton would put Pakistan back in the spotlight as an attractive, safe tourist spot.