It is heartening to finallywitnessscenic valleys of Gilgit- Baltistan abound with tourists from across the country and abroad.The increased influx of touristsheralds revival of the declining tourism sector, shaken by rampant terrorism and deteriorating law and order situation. Nonetheless, things have changed for good and the region has paced up its progress in socio-economic wellbeing on back of a flourishing tourism industry.
However, the otherwise optimisticturn of events hasn’t gone well with everyone. The increased inflowof tourists into the region hasrattled nature-lovers and proponents of environment protectionwho tend to see booming tourism industry as a potent threat to the precarious local environment of the region. A debate around whether to trade off environment for economic wellbeing is hotamong environmentalists and supporters of tourism on social media and elsewhere. To the dread of ecologists, tourists have been spewing tons of waste across the region,reducing the scenic valleys to ugly dumpsites. Mostly plastic bottles and bags, the litter is there to stay forever in absence of a functional tourism infrastructure in the region, posing grave threat to the local environment. Occasionally, volunteers lend helping hand to dispose-off the waste but it cannot suffice.
The prevalent debate is very relevant in context of the recent environmental disasters that hit the geographical region of Gilgit and Chitral. Thedreadfulland slide and subsequent formation of Attabad Lake gave rise to an unrelenting humanitarian crisis in the region. Flash floods have become a usual feature of monsoon season taking heavy toll on lives and property of the mountain communities. Scientific bodies watching over the glaciers and ice caps have been constantly raising alarms about drastic increase in glacier melting in the region and an impending drinking water shortage.
It is besetting to witness that majority of people and the government fails to perceive environmental degradation and climate change as a genuine threat or of the magnitude, warranting meaningful intervention. Moreover, lack of awareness or downrightindifferencetowards scientific reason alone to consider the issue worthwhile has largely impeded meaningful action in this regard. Hence, the proponents of environmental protection have little success so far in securing considerable support to further their cause.
Hence with a considerably heavy cost, irresponsible tourism is on boom. Local communities which extended all out support and hospitality to the visitors, to the extent of sparing rooms in their homes for tourists who could not find a hotel room, have been decrying insensitivity on their guests’ part. With social media pleading tourists in futility, not to litter the scenic region, the area continues to gather thousands of tons of inorganic waste, leaving one in dire want of promoting sensible and environmental-friendly tourism.
Unfortunately, the most relevant player in all the matter, the tourism department is completely missing from the picture. With the tourism department completely dysfunctional, the tourism industry goes completely unregulated. Domestic tour operators, hoteliers and tour planners have nobody to watch over them to maintain check and balance to bring a little relief to the tourists.
While tourists appreciate the scenic beauty and the rich culture, they also decry the dilapidation or the lack ofinfrastructure in the region to explore the tourism potential of the region. With better infrastructure in place, the region has the potential to contribute billions to the national exchequer.
One can just wish that the environment protection department and tourism department work in close coordination to promote responsible and eco-friendly tourism in the region. It is imperative that the environmental tradeoff be estimated ahead of organizing kinds of Deosai Festival or Shandur Polo Festival. Basic infrastructure or at least waste bins should be provided at camping and scenic sites. The departments should establish a meaningful working relationship with the local communities and media to inspire support for promotion of responsible tourism in order to strike a balance between environmental protection and economic wellbeing.