Pakistan’s stunning mountainous north is perhaps the country’s best-kept secret—or was. Over the last few years, both local and international tourists have begun to explore the picturesque valleys of Hunza, Gilgit Baltistan, and the surrounding areas. With popular tourist destinations like Nathia Gali, only a few hours driving from the country’s capital of Islamabad, and international travel restricted, the past two years have seen a boom in local tourism to otherwise remote areas in the country.
Popularity can go wrong, it seems, as a recent rave held in Hunza became the reason officials banned music festivals in the area. The incident raised a debate amongst tourists and travel bloggers on the impact mass tourism can have on local communities. One thing was clearly missing from the discussion carried out in the mainstream media: the opinions of locals within Hunza.
Pakistan’s recent rise in tourism has been linked to an influx of foreign travel bloggers who have been aided by the government in seminars and content making to promote a “good image” of Pakistan. That rise in foreign coverage has meant a greater silencing of local voices, particularly from women and marginalized communities who feel increasingly unable to talk about their experiences in the face of such marketing. Of the multiple reasons these voices hold so much power, is Pakistan’s obsession with outside validation and proving their “good image” to the world—a homogenous narrative that the government is insistent on spreading at the risk of silencing diverse and important local voices.
Basharat Issa is a professor at Habib University and the co-host of the podcast, Sabz Bagh, which explores the lived experiences of people in Gilgit Baltistan. Born and raised in Yasin Village in the Gilgit-Baltistan region, Issa believes there is a significant gap amidst perceptions of remote tourist areas in the country versus the reality of life there. Referring to the boom in tourism in the last five years and the many complications it has brought with it, Issa says, “The biggest problem is the ‘exoticized’ image of this whole region that vloggers and the media put forth. It’s become a sort of paradise for ‘mainlanders’ to come and enjoy their holiday.”
Locals believe that the reality is far from that. There appears to be a major gap in the experiences of foreign travelers and those within the country, particularly residents of these newly popular areas. While multiple foreign women travelers have traveled to Pakistan for adventure tourism and praised the country’s hospitality, local women rarely share the same experiences. Issa points out that in regions like Hunza, where tourism is increasing rapidly—and includes vacations, weddings, and adventure tours—women’s mobility is being restricted because of the disregard with which the tourist industry is populating the region. “Women would travel freely previously, and that movement’s been affected because they feel that their privacy has been encroached on,” Issa explains.
Aneeqa Ali, an adventure traveler who travels to the country’s north almost every year, says the lack of women in the tourism industry was glaringly obvious, and she wanted to do something about it. This obvious gender gap and a desire to get more women to step outside of their comfort zones are what motivated Ali to co-found The Madhatters, a women-led experiential adventure travel company, and the Root Network, an organization focused on building sustainable tourism in Pakistan by empowering local communities and including their voices within change.
Take a tour with the Madhatters, and you’ll be far from the fancy hotels and tourist hubs that have sprung up around Pakistan. Currently, Ali is in Gilgit Baltistan, getting locals involved in the Root Network’s initiative to create sustainable opportunities for women in tourism.
“It’s a difficult balance to maintain,” Ali points out. ”Having to navigate between protecting local cultures, but at the same time also making sure we are not robbing local communities of a chance at development and moving forward.” The tourism industry has undoubtedly brought economic gains to previously neglected areas in Pakistan, and change is happening fast. Still, it also needs to happen in the right way, and Ali wants to make sure the changes the Root Networks brings are the ones women in tourist areas need.
Issa points out that locals in areas like Gilgit Baltistan have previously felt neglected, even by authorities who have rarely stood up for sustainable development within the area. “There are genuine voices here who want to fight for change, but it often feels like these voices are deliberately being limited to the region,” Issa says.
The locals’ experiences are often only made worse when famous travel bloggers come in, only to take aesthetically-pleasing pictures and leave without ever highlighting the reality of Pakistanis’ lives. But Naveed Khan, the founder of Hunza on Foot, sees the environment and the places he travels to as an integral part of his work. Khan has worked with Humans of New York to bring Brandon Stanton to Pakistan, and in 2016 walked from Khunjerab Pass—the highest point in Pakistan—to the Karachi coast at the other end of the country.
As an adventurer and mountaineer, his love for the mountains inspired him to quit his job at the BBC and take up traveling full time. His work has truly helped him understand the value of sustainable traveling. While Khan does point out the visible change over the last few years, he shares how he can now do Instagram Lives from places where he previously couldn’t get a signal. Khan calls this growth in tourism a “Band-aid problem to an economical solution.”
The resources and privileges tourists often have will not benefit local communities in Pakistan until they are made a part of the conversation. Khan believes that these regions are not yet ready for the mass tourism that is coming. He shares that he sees the environment and destinations he plans tours to as active parts of his journey. “The way I see what I do is, my product is the outdoors, and if my product is no longer viable or marketable, I no longer have a product to sell,” says Khan of his company’s philosophy. “Places that are visited need to be left cleaner than they were found.”