Wed, Feb 22, 2017 - Page 6 News List

Ski resort razed by Taliban lifts Pakistan’s local tourism

Reuters, MALAM JABBA, Pakistan

A policeman stands guard at the base of the chairlift to the ski resort in Malam Jabba, Pakistan, on Feb. 7.

Photo: Reuters

Atop the piste of Malam Jabba in Pakistan’s once dangerous Swat Valley skiers schuss downhill, a new Chinese-built chairlift ferries tourists to the peak and a luxury hotel is under construction to replace one torched by the Taliban.

The Taliban declared skiing “un-Islamic” during their 2007 to 2009 reign of terror over Swat, but improved security in recent years has allowed ski tourism to re-emerge on Malam Jabba, a hill station in the Hindu Kush mountain range.

Locals tout Swat as “the Switzerland of Pakistan,” with an international ski tournament held there last month.

However, the experience is uniquely Pakistani. Army checkpoints abound, while gun-toting policemen riding up the mountain flout chairlift signs warning: “No Smoking, No Weapons.”

There is no apres-ski boozing as alcohol is banned, nor Swiss Raclette cheese, but lentil curry and deep-fried kebab patties make ample fuel for skiers.

“I have never seen snow before. I am very excited,” said Usman Shaukat, a 22-year-old student from the sweltering Punjab in the south after his first ski lesson.

Shaukat, who traveled about 600km and braved pot-holed mountain roads by public bus to reach the ski slopes, is part of a new wave of domestic tourists emerging as security improves, the middle-class prospers and social media sites such as Facebook reveal a Pakistan many never knew existed.

It is also easier for Pakistanis to explore their own country than holiday abroad.

Regional road trips are difficult, with war-torn Afghanistan and arch-foe India next door, while the US and many European countries have tightened visa restrictions as part of tougher security measures.

Part-time travel blogger Saira Ali, 27, began exploring her own nation after the US denied her a visa in 2013.

“If my visa had not been rejected, I wouldn’t have seen Pakistan,” said Ali, who charts her travels on Instagram.

Growing car ownership and freshly paved roads have cut journey times to remote holiday destinations, swelling the number of adventure seekers in a nation of 200 million people.

Pakistan’s isolation has been a blessing for business, hotel owners said.

In summer last year, visitors to cool northern areas slept in cars as budget hotels sold out, tourist guides said.

Guesthouses are now popping up along roads to Pakistan’s northern mountains, which until the 1970s were a stop-off for Westerners on the “Hippie Trail.”

Outside Swat’s main city of Mingora, where the Taliban once hanged opponents from electricity pylons, one businessman is plowing US$1.5 million into a 13-floor hotel with 60 rooms and a miniature zoo.

“In the future, Swat will prosper, as security here is now very good,” Khan said, sitting near two caged monkeys.

Muslim militants have lost a lot of territory, but the Taliban and others, including the Islamic State, still carry out periodic large-scale bombings.

A series of attacks last week hit all four of Pakistan’s provinces and two major cities, killing nearly 100 people and shaking a nascent sense that the worst of the country’s militant violence might be in the past.

Before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the US, foreigners accounted for the majority of Pakistan’s tourists. Today, Western embassies advise against visiting much of Pakistan.

The actual scale of domestic tourism is hard to judge, as scant nationwide data exists since the government dissolved the federal tourism ministry in 2011.

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