By Israr Ahmed
Pakistan today is a very small player in global tourism. Despite that the country has considerable tourist potential, its share in global tourism earning is negligible. Pakistan’s share in the over $ 900 billion tourism industry of the world is merely 230 million dollars.
Despite having enormous tourism potential which ranges from heritages, cultural, religious tourism to nature and ecotourism; the negligible share of the country in global tourism revenue underscores the fact that till now no concerted efforts has been made to tap and exploit the potential of tourism sector.
Pakistan is home to most stunning Himalayan peaks, including K-2 and various magnificent valleys. It has beautiful Arabian Sea, deserts, Indus valley, ancient Buddah’s civilization carved in its mountains and historic forts.
As far as the nature of tourism is concerned, Pakistan has been gifted gracefully with great and wonderful hills, mountains, picturesque valleys, landscapes and lush green hilly destinations. With all this, it should have been one of the world’s greatest tourist destinations.
But due to a weak travel and tourism framework, low branding and marketing effectiveness and deduced priority given to the travel and tourism industry by the government, besides the ongoing militancy Pakistan has been ranked 103 of 124 countries around the globe by the World Economic forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report.
The northern parts of Pakistan have many old fortresses, towers and other architecture as well as scenic, beautiful and mountainous valleys such as Hunza and Chitral. The latter is home to the small pre-Islamic Animist Kalash community, who are believed to be descendents of the army of Alexander the Great. Chitral also has the highest polo ground in the world, the Shandur Polo Ground, which is 12,500ft (4,000 metres) above sea level.
Though the ongoing militancy has wrecked havoc with the country’s economy, but it cost the tourism industry of the country especially that of the northern parts of the country heavily. The Swat Valley, once called Switzerland of Pakistan, has been deserted by tourists both the local as well as foreigners due to worst law and order situation amid Taliban insurgency. The destruction caused to the tourism industry especially in Swat due to the militancy is such in magnanimity that it would be a daunting task to restore the past glory of the valley.
But the Chitral Valley, which remained completely safe from the ongoing militancy and have exemplary law and order situation in the country given the prevailing situation, and have enormous potential of tourism ranging from cultural and heritage to hiking and ecotourism is being ignored by the relevant authorities.
Tourism potential in Chitral is no secret and the beautiful landscape and the unique cultural heritage give the valley a competitive advantage in attracting tourists.
The Chitral Valley, which was an internally autonomous princely state until 1969, when General Yahya Khan made it a settled district of the newly created Malakand Division of NWFP, is situated about 322km from Peshawar. The whole area is mountainous, having green valleys and the towering Trichmir Peak (7,700 meters) of the Hindukush. The Chitral Fort is one of the famous monuments of the town. There is also a palace inside the fort and a beautiful mosque outside the fort.
Despite worst law and order situation in other Districts of the Malakand Division, this area is extremely peaceful. The residents are peace loving and crimes rate in the area is negligible.
A number of cultural and traditional festivals are held regularly in the area throughout the year, which have great attraction for tourists. But due to lack of official patronage and negligence of the relevant quarters, the potential of tourism has not yet been exploited. Even the relevant departments and authorities, whose primary task is to promote and develop tourism sector, have been keeping themselves aloof from the vast potentials of these traditional festivals to attract tourists from across the country as well as abroad.
The area and its unmatchable attractions for tourists have never been properly marketed and advertised by the relevant quarters to attract tourists and capitalize on the potentials.
Recently, the three-day calendar spring festival of the northern Chitral, Jashn-e-Qaqlast was held from April 15 to 18 at Qaqlasht.
Qaqlasht is a flat terrain that is located about 80 kilometers north of Chitral town and approachable by a smooth drive of one and half-hour. When early spring sweeps through the valley, this Plateau type of plane transforms into a gorgeous picnic resort with a carpet grassy and tiny yellow flowers stretched miles and miles that attracts a great number of people from different parts of the district and other parts of the country.
‘Jashan-e-Qaqlasht’ is the old-age festival of the people of northern Chitral with a history of more than 2,000 years. Rais rulers used to organize it in the remote past to be continued by the Kator dynasty, which not only assiduously patronized this particular cultural event, but also promoted other festivals e.g. Jashan-e-Shandur and Jashan-e-Chitral.
However, after the status of Chitral as an autonomous princedom came to an end in 1969, the festivals of the indigenous mountain communities ceased to be celebrated until 2003 when Jashan-e-Chitral for the first time was revived through the support of UNESCO after its discontinuation for 27 years and Jashan-e-Qaqlasht after abandoning for 35 years.
The Jashan-e-Qaqlasht features traditional sports and cultural events of the surrounding local communities.
The event, which was organized by Chitral Association for Mountain Area Tourism (CAMAT) in collaboration with Sarhad Tourism Corporation (STC), also featured some of the traditional sports e.g. Bodi Dik and folksongs/folkdances e.g. ‘chong righishi’ and ‘tatali wawali’, and ‘mamashish’ which are at the verge of extinction. Braises these activates, the festival also featured cultural events and cultural music i.e. folksongs, folkdances, music of reed instrument and that of pure Chitrali sitar. Unlike the past, this time the STC sponsored the event and it advertised it through national newspapers to attract large numbers of people from across the country.
The festival is organized with the objective to protect the indigenous Kho culture and to highlight and market it as tourism product so as to attract maximum national and international tourists to the region that could help reduce poverty by providing tourism-related job opportunities to the locals apart from promoting cross-cultural understanding and harmony.
This year, as the STC sponsored the Jashan-e-Qaqlasht, it was advertised in major national dailies and the STC announced special package for tourists from across the country, which was responded very encouragingly.
When contacted by Business Recorder, Programme Manager CAMAT Shamsuddin said that this year the festival received very encouraging and positive response from tourists across the country.
He said as the STC had sponsored the festival and offered attractive packages to the tourists, large number of people from across the country participated in the festival. He underlined the need to properly market the tourism potential of the area at national as wells as international level, as the snow-covered peaks and lush green valleys besides the diverse cultural and heritages have great potential to attract tourists from across the globe.
He said the festival was held in extremely peaceful atmosphere, as the exemplary law and order of the area did not necessitated any special security arrangement. Over 20,000 people from all over the Chitral district as well as tourists from Peshawar, Islamabad and other parts of the country participated in the festival. The cultural music, folkdances and folksongs were the most interesting phenomenon of the mega event. There was a big bonfire for night musical programme.
Besides the Jashn-e-Qaqlast, there are many other festivals, which are celebrated every year and have great attraction for tourists from across the country and some even from outside the country.
The three-day sporting and entertainment event, called as Shandur Polo Festival, takes place on the high altitude ground, which is the highest polo ground in the world, every year in July. The festival features exquisite, thrilling and spectacular polo matches between teams of Chitral and Gilgit, besides many others sporting and entertainment events.
For the last couple of years the festival has gained international popularity and tourists from across the country as well as abroad thronged the highest polo ground of the world to enjoy the festivities of the event and beauty of the idyllic Shandur valley, which is overlooked by snowy peaks besides a crystal clear lake.
Although the tourism industry of the country has jeopardized due to the volatile law and order situation, despite all odds the Shandur festival attracts a large numbers of tourists from all over the world.
One of the major attractions of Chitral are the Kalash valleys- the home of the Kafir-Kalash or "Wearers of the Black Robes”, a primitive pagan tribe.
Over 3,000-strong Kafir-Kalash live in the valley of Birir, Bumburet and Rambur, south of Chitral town.
The Kalash women wear black gowns of coarse cloth in summer and hand-spun wool dyed in black in winter. Their picturesque headgear is made of woolen black material decked out with cowry shells, buttons and crowned with a large coloured feather. Due to their unique culture, the Kalash people and their festivals attract large numbers of tourists from across the country and abroad.
The Kalash are fun loving people who love music and dancing particularly on occasion of their religious festivals like Joshi Chilinjusht (14th & 15th May-spring), Phool (20th – 25th September) and Chomas (18th to 21st December for a week).
Joshi or Chilimjusht (14th and 15th May): This festival is held in spring, when girls pick first flowers of the year. The days are marked by dancing, visiting each other and exchanging flowers, milk and milk products.
Utchal (Mid July): It is celebrated to mark the harvest of wheat and barley. The celebration lasts for two days, which includes dancing, singing, and feasting.
Phool (20th to 21st December): The festival is to mark the reaping of grapes and walnuts harvests. (Subject to weather conditions).
Chowas (18th to 21st December): Chowas is a winter festival celebrated to welcome the New Year. The entire population remains indoor. It is celebrated by feasting, drinking and merry making until the elders, who sit on hill top watching the sun reaching the orbit, then declare the advent of the new year. They come down from the hills, light their torches, perform their dance and sacrifice goats at the altar.
The Boroghil festival is held from July 15 to 17 at the famous Boroghil plateau at the summer settlement of Shuwor Sheer. The level grassy Shuwor Sheer is situated at the junction of the Chianter glacier, the Zindikharam pass to Darkot and Yasin, the Kurambar pass down into Iskhumnan and the Darwaza pass into the Wakhan corridor.
The salient feature of this festival are various events like wild mountain polo, horse race on the wide pastures, Yak Polo and Yak race the only event of its kind in the world, Buz Kashi, and traditional music in the evenings. The Wakhi Sirikuli, Tajik and Kirghiz tribes who are scattered over the Boroghil in Pakistan and Wakhan corridor in Afghanistan find this festival a wonderful opportunity to exchange pleasantries. It is an occasion where families meet, news shared and marriages formalized. The area offers the pristine turquoise Kurambar Lake at 4620m a stopover for migratory birds from Russia and Central Asia.