Tue, Jul 23, 2013 - Page 12 News List

‘Paradise on earth’

Tourists flock to Pakistan’s Kashmir valley in rare boom

By Sajjad Qayyum  /  AFP, NEELUM VALLEY, Pakistan

Raja Zarat Khan, who owns a private guesthouse, said he was fully booked into the next week and he had no cancellations.

“I’m having a great season,” he said.

Mohammad Awais, 44, runs a restaurant, a string of guesthouses and now also takes tour groups to the Neelum Valley.

“This business has changed my life. Last year I did excellent trade because I gave tourists a lot of incentives: hiking, trekking, fishing, boating. The environment in Neelum Valley is very good. Once you enter the valley, no one wants to leave.”

He also doesn’t expect the Gilgit shootings to have a major impact.

“It hasn’t made a big difference — perhaps four to five percent because the elite class, who come here, feel insecure, but no one has cancelled any bookings. People are still coming,” he said.

The boom is welcome in a region where many men have traditionally left behind their families to work in Pakistan’s largest cities.

Awais has hired cleaners, cooks, drivers and tourist guides: all men who would otherwise be unemployed.

Suppliers have benefited. Villagers even sell their freshly grown cherries, apricots and plums to tourists.

But others warn that more needs to be done to sustain the boom across the rest of Pakistani-Kashmir.

“There are some beautiful places in our area, but there are no proper roads available and the tourists can’t go to these areas,” said Khawaja Abdul Samad, who is thinking about opening his own hotel.

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