Welcome to Swat
By: Tahir Ali
The influx of thousands of tourists to the scenic valley of Kalam to attend the recently-held summer festival was a rather welcome sign for the tourism industry in Swat, the Switzerland of Pakistan.
The festival was organised in Kalam and Mahodand simultaneously by the Pakistan Army from July 12-16. Programmes were held in Mahodand during the day and at the grassy ground near the Kalam bazaar at night.
According to the Inter Services Public Relations Swat in-charge Colonel Arif, thousands of tourists visited the valley following the return of peace and construction of roads — and sent a message to the world that Swat is now open for tourism.
Mahodand is a scenic resort located some 35km north-east of Kalam. There is a big natural lake where boats and other water vehicles were available on rent.
On the way, a traveller came across stunning glaciers, waterfalls and hydropower stations, and could devour some delectable snacks. Emergency medical camp had been established too. Accommodation in tents was available but several tourists had brought their own tents. Horse riding, free-fall and other athletic activities were also arranged.
However speeding cars and vans created a lot of dust as the road has not been carpeted yet — though it was negotiable even by small Suzuki cars. Some adventurous youngsters had reached the valley on motorbikes in groups.
Unlike previous years, when the Bahrain-Kalam road was navigated only by 4-wheel drives, this year public transport was available to Kalam from Mingora. However, no public transport was available between Kalam and Mahodand. Tourists either travelled by their own vehicles or hired taxi from Kalam at Rs2000-2500 for two way journey to and from Mahodand.
“I have been to various tourists resorts round the world but Mahodand is simply wonderful… The area has all the potential to attract tourists,” said Muneeza Hashmi, a tourist from Sialkot.
In the grassy ground of Kalam, tourists enjoyed festivities at night. Hayatullah Khan, another tourist, recollected it was the same ground where a militant in April 2009 had openly challenged the state — “It is heartening to see that today a multitude of tourists are attending the festivities”.
At night, dozens of tourists went up and down the road dancing to the noisy beat of music played in cars or that of drums played by local men.
The presence of vast number of female tourists was encouraging in the Kalam bazaar.
Unfortunately, no foreigner was seen strolling in Kalam or Bahrain or Miandam or other attractive valleys in the area. Are they not allowed or do they prefer not to come here, one wondered. But Col Arif said foreign tourists are not barred from visiting the area.
Tourism in Swat has been badly impacted by militancy, indifference of government and raging poverty. Kalam, Bahrain and Madyan were devastated by floods. Of the total 136 hotels swept away by floods in 2010, 50 were in Kalam. It still wears a deserted look. But friends and couples were sitting besides the river on boulders, charpoys and standing in the crystal clear water of the river Swat, enjoying snacks and chatting endlessly.
Details about the identity of tourists are registered at several checkposts between Kalam and Mahodand, which most tourists found to be time consuming. Zulfiqar Ali, a tourist, said he counted 17 checkposts from Dargai to Mahodand. “The number of checkposts could be reduced without any compromise on security by opening a big registration camp at Landaki Swat where the visitors are registered and issued special passes,” he said.
Zahid Khan also said though these are meant for public safety, there should be no more than 5 checkposts from Dargai to Kalam.
Col Arif however said that the number of checkposts was reduced from 29 last year to 15 this year to facilitate tourists. “Some tourists’ information and facilitation centres may have been mistaken as checkposts,” he said.
Though the hoteliers haven’t announced any special discount for the tourists unlike last season, Iftikhar Ahmad, a hotel manager in Bahrain, said room fares were far cheaper than other tourist resorts in Murree or Kaghan.
He was all praise for the USAID which he said offered in-cash and in-kind support to the hotel industry in Swat.
“Earlier communication to Kalam and other upper Swat areas would remain suspended for days. But last winter, for the first time in history, traffic to Kalam didn’t stop even for a day. Hopefully, the coming season will be the best in terms of winter tourism,” Col Arif added.
Zahid Khan, the president of Swat hotel association, said funds allocated for the roads should be released without delay. “Former Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani had promised he would release funds for the Swat expressway linked to Peshawar motorway but its fulfilment is still awaited. The Tourism Corporation KP should construct roads or provide chairlift facilities to far off valleys in Swat,” said Khan.
Though tourism is part of the productive sectors, the sector was allocated just Rs0.67billion or one per cent of the provincial annual development plan (ADP) in 2010. The next year, the sector’s budget was increased to Rs1.22bn or 1.4 per cent of ADP but has been slashed to Rs0.68billion this fiscal year.
There is however no foreign funded project in the ADP for the tourism sector in successive budgets.
Tourism has been devolved to the provinces, yet the PTDC hotels and motels are yet to be handed over to the province. If devolved, the resourceful PTDC would suffice the province to run the ministry from its own revenues.