Tourists flock to Pakistan Kashmir valley in rare boom

Updated 12 August 2013
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Tourists flock to Pakistan Kashmir valley in rare boom

Success stories can be rare in Pakistan, but business is booming in one Kashmir tourist spot as the region rebuilds after a devastating earthquake and shrugs off associations with violence.
Hundreds of thousands of Pakistani tourists drawn to the lakes and glaciers of the Neelum valley are injecting desperately needed money into one of the poorest parts of the country.
Westerners stopped coming to the Himalayas of Pakistani-Kashmir years ago, put off by its reputation as a training ground for militant groups and the risk of sporadic conflict with India.
But with a new road built by the Chinese after the 2005 earthquake killed 73,000 people and a cease-fire holding with India, Pakistanis are discovering the snow-capped peaks, glaciers, lakes and lush-green meadows of the Neelum valley.
Known locally as “Paradise on Earth,” the valley is 114 km east of the base camp where gunmen shot dead American, Chinese, Lithuanian, Slovakian and Ukranian climbers in June.
It was the worst attack on foreigners in Pakistan for a decade, but in neighboring Kashmir, few Pakistanis are worried.
“There is a bit of fear there, but overall we are enjoying ourselves and we will stay according to our plan,” said Mohammad Amir, a lawyer on holiday with his family from southern Punjab.
Munazza Tariq, a university student from Karachi, agrees.
“This was carried out by enemies of Pakistan. After it happened, we received a lot of calls from our relatives from Karachi, but we are safe and enjoying ourselves,” said Munazza.
Local tourism ministry official Shehla Waqar says 600,000 people visited Neelum last year compared to 130,000 in 2010, before the Chinese built a road linking the area to Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir.
“There is an influx of tourists in the area because we have a very beautiful road from Muzaffarabad to the Neelum Valley,” she said
The nearby Line of Control slices apart the Indian and Pakistani-held zones of the Himalayan region where a cease-fire has held since November 2003.
“This area is very peaceful and there is no fear of terrorism,” said Waqar.
India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region claimed in full by both sides.
Sporadic clashes killed six soldiers in January and February, but officials on both sides have kept tensions in check and Pakistan’s newly elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has put improving relations with India at the cornerstone of his foreign policy.
By contrast, Taleban attacks in the northwest — where mountain resorts have in the past sucked domestic tourism away from Kashmir — and the impact of crippling power cuts pushing people toward balmier climes is also driving visitor numbers higher, Waqar said.
There are now 115 registered guest houses in the Neelum valley, local deputy commissioner Mohammad Farid told AFP, compared to none in 2010.
The authorities say they have stepped up security after the climbers were killed in Gilgit-Baltistan, but because tourists in Kashmir are Pakistani rather than foreign, they are not braced for a serious knock-on effect.
“We have strict instructions that all government and private guest houses are to close their main gates at 10 pm,” Kashmir tourism minister Abdul Salam Butt told AFP.
“No doubt this incident has damaged international tourism in Pakistan, but it won’t affect Kashmir because we host domestic tourists,” he added.

Raja Zarat Khan, who owns a private guest house, said he was fully booked into the next week and he had no cancelations.
“I’m having a great season,” he said.
Mohammad Awais, 44, runs a restaurant, a string of guest houses 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 canceled 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.


Mariam’s journey to North Pole ‘an inspiration for Saudi women’

Crossing the unwelcoming terrain of the North Pole is not for the faint-hearted. Mariam Hamidaddin’s brave and inspirational journey to the top of the earth was ended by the threat of frostbite. Reuters
Updated 20 May 2018
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Mariam’s journey to North Pole ‘an inspiration for Saudi women’

  • Mariam Hamidaddin was one of 11 women from Europe and the Middle East taking part in the recent Women’s Euro-Arabian Polar Expedition, an initiative aimed to foster greater dialogue and inspire women to push their limits and fulfill their ambitions.
  • Two weeks later and Hamidaddin still could not feel her fingertips. She struggles to cut a steak and needs help to tie her shoelaces. Medics say it could be months or even years before she fully recovers.

LONDON: Mariam Hamidaddin was skiing toward the North Pole in temperatures as low as minus 38 C when she was advised by her team leader to give up on her dream and take a helicopter back to base camp.
She did so reluctantly. Frostbite had taken its toll on the Jeddah-born entrepreneur’s hands, but with no previous experience of such climates, Hamidaddin was unaware of the severity. Only when she was assessed by a Russian medic who spoke pidgin English did she appreciate how close she was to losing her fingers.
“The words he told me were: ‘No chop’ ... which was scary but also a great relief to hear,” said Hamidaddin, one of 11 women from Europe and the Middle East taking part in the recent Women’s Euro-Arabian Polar Expedition, an initiative aimed to foster greater dialogue and inspire women to push their limits and fulfill their ambitions. Team leader Felicity Aston deliberately chose women with no athletic or Arctic experience with the intention of demonstrating that anybody can achieve their goals with determination.
As Hamidaddin discovered, however, having an expert on hand helps. The transition from frostnip to frostbite can be a matter of five or 10 minutes, so it is essential for people in extreme weather to pay attention to their body. The tiniest sign can help avoid severe consequences.
The 32-year-old had followed all the instructions learned during training camps in Iceland and Oman: She kept moving to circulate her blood and had not removed her gloves even once in the Arctic. She felt pain, yes, but the entire team had frostnip, so why should she consider quitting?
Fortunately for her future — and her fingers — the decision was taken for her.

Mariam Hamidaddin was an inspirational member of the North Pole expedition before a doctor’s verdict cut her journey short.


“There was no proper moment where I realized I had frostbite,” Hamidaddin told Arab News after returning to the heat of Saudi Arabia. “If it was up to me, I would have wanted to continue, so I am extremely thankful that I was asked to evacuate because the frostbite gradually got worse and worse.
Basically, the team leader saved my fingers.”
Two weeks later and Hamidaddin still could not feel her fingertips. She struggles to cut a steak and needs help to tie her shoelaces. Medics say it could be months or even years before she fully recovers.
This month on her Instagram feed @InTuneToTheSound, she is posting photos of her journey in non-chronological order. The intention is to be “open and vulnerable and hopefully inspire people.” In a post, a video shows her typing at a computer using only her right pinky finger.
“There is a negative media perception of what a Saudi woman looks like and what she can and can’t do,” said Hamidaddin. “For this reason, it’s important for us to show that what you see in the media isn’t necessary a true reflection of who we truly are.
“It is also important to share our failures as well because when I see success upon success, I cannot connect with that. I am human, I have weakness and I fall, and I need to know that when I fall, I can rise again. Those stories are the ones that will connect most with people.”
With Saudi Arabia women now competing at the Olympic Games, being allowed to attend football matches at certain stadiums and the imminent lifting of a ban on driving, opportunities for women in the Kingdom are blossoming.
Hamidaddin, founder of the Humming Tree, a co-working space and community center that focuses on creativity and wellbeing, said she sees examples of strong, athletic and confident women every day.
“You can see them everywhere — women running, biking, climbing mountains,” she said.
“So we are already there. It’s just a matter of sharing these stories more. We are strong women; we know what we want and we find a way around it. We do what we need to do and we get it done. The fact that driving now is going to be open for us, just makes all that easier.”
Although Hamidaddin’s journey to the North Pole was cut short, the team’s doctor said she could wait out the expedition in the warmth of base camp and celebrate with her team when they reached their destination.
It was an opportunity that, even with frostbite, she was never going to turn down. What she found at the top of the world was a beautiful, dreamlike landscape — and, perhaps fittingly, a perpetual chase to reach her goal.
“Unlike the South Pole, which is a landmass, the North Pole is a constantly drifting landscape. It’s sea ice on top of the Arctic Ocean and it’s always moving, so you are constantly trying to catch it,” she said.
“One minute you’re on top of the world taking a photo and by the time you’re done taking it, well, the North Pole is a few miles away. You have to keep trying to catch it.”