July Issue 2015

By | Economy | Life Style | Published 4 years ago

With its tall mountains, thick pine forests, lush green plains, and the numerous arteries of the gushing Swat river that originate from snow-covered peaks up north and serve as a lifeline to the valley, Swat is arguably one of the most attractive tourist destinations in Pakistan.

This beautiful and tranquil valley became a no-go area for tourists during the 2000s when Maulvi Fazlullah and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan held sway in the area. People were beheaded publicly and it was here that the infamous flogging of a young girl took place.

But after the army operation in 2007, the valley has begun to return to normal. Tourists and tourism have now returned to the valley.

A Pakistan Army officer tells Newsline that many tourists have no idea of what Swat has to offer as a tourist destination. “Many visitors come here with the idea that Swat will be similar to Murree, which is a congested hill station. But it could take several days, even weeks, to explore the many valleys in Swat. And it is Kalam that can rightly be called the jewel in the crown of Swat,” he says.

According to available statistics, Swat is visited by at least a few thousand tourists every year, and many hotels run at full capacity. Most of the tourists come from various parts of Pakistan. However, foreign visitors are still hesitant to make the trip.

As soon as temperatures in the plains across the country rise, hoteliers in Kalam begin expecting an influx of guests in June-July, when schools and colleges across the country shut down for the summer vacations. “This is the time parents usually plan trips to hill stations. We will have so many guests that you will find it hard to walk on this road even after midnight,” says Muhammad Amin, a hotel owner in Kalam.

Last year, an estimated half-a-million native tourists, most of them from the plains of Punjab, visited Swat during the summer season. Many of these tourists were lured by the Kalam sports gala.

The sports gala was organised by the Pakistan Army and the Tourism Corporation Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (TCKP). The festival offered a range of events and activities for visitors. This year, too, the TCKP organised a summer festival in the scenic valley to attract more vacationers.

Hotels in Swat are cheap compared to those in other tourist destinations. In Kalam, where there are between 350 and 360 hotels, one can rent a room for as little as Rs 500. However, these days the rates could also go up to Rs 3,000. Basic facilities provided include a bed, warm water and uninterrupted power supply. Hotels located away from the main bazaar are cheaper. However, the rates often increase when the number of visitors rises. “Rooms available for Rs 1,000 are rented out for up to Rs 5,000 during the peak tourism season. Some hotels charge even more by offering a better quality of service,” Amin adds.

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Incidentally, some ingenious visitors who can afford to leave their work and businesses for a longer period have come up with the cost-effective idea of renting houses for the summer season. Consequently, people in Kalam have turned to building new houses on their land for renting out to such tourists.

Wazir Ahmad, a resident of Jalbanr village in Kalam, believes renting out their houses is a good seasonal business. “Visitors pay anywhere between Rs 40,000 to 80,000 for a house for the four months between June and September. Some spend the entire season here with their families, others give the rented houses to their relatives after spending some time,” he explains.

Saeed Afridi, a seasonal visitor to Kalam, was in search of one such house to rent for his family. “Last year I spent the entire month of Ramazan with my family in a house we rented for Rs 35,000 only. I hope to strike a bargain again and bring my family here before the month of fasting begins,” he says.

Wazir Ahmad is full of praise for the tourists: “We happily welcome the guests in our area. Our women visit their women and vice versa and food and gifts are exchanged. Friendship develops and remains intact even after the visitors return to their areas.”

More importantly, the locals are friendly and do not bother the tourists. “If you wish to go for a walk with your family after midnight, you can do so without any fear. In fact the markets will be full of other tourists out with their families and nobody will ask you what you are doing at that time of the night,” says Humayun Shinwari, enthusiastically. Shinwari is from Landi Kotal in the Khyber Agency, and has been in the hoteliering business for 28 years.

The food available in Kalam bazaar is of good quality and available at a reasonable price. One can enjoy a hearty chicken karahi meal for Rs 500 from a roadside dhaba. The high profile hotels, however, charge up to Rs 850 for the same dish.

New vocational centres are also providing a boost to the arts and crafts of Swat, famous for its phulkari embroidered shawls, for example.

Another luxury that tourists, who suffer from long hours of power outages in their native areas, will enjoy here is the uninterrupted power supply. Through the efforts of the Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP) and funding from the European Union’s Programme for Economic Advancement and Community Empowerment (PEACE), a 400-kilowatt micro-hydro power unit in Kalam was established in a period of six months.

The power plant provides electricity to 637 houses, 43 shops and hotels, schools and a hospital in Kalam for up to 22 hours every day. The two-hour interruption, according to Arif Khan, an engineer at the power station, is because the generators are rested to ensure their longevity. “This loadshedding will be gone once the construction work on the 1.3 megawatt Ashrun power plant is completed by the end of this summer,” he claims.

However, Shinwari laments the condition of the roads as it discourages tourists from coming to Kalam. One tourist who was visiting Kalam with friends, says, “The journey breaks your bones and you feel exhausted after driving from Bahrain to Kalam. It’s like reaching paradise via hell.”

After leaving the Islamabad-Peshawar M1 Motorway at the Mardan interchange, holidaymakers headed to Swat have to get to Dargai to undergo security checks and occasional verification and registration of their credentials on the basis of their computerised national identity cards at the Pakistan Army checkpoint. The checkpoint once used to be the cause of long delays for traffic as the security personnel carried out extensive screening of each traveller due to the volatile security situation in Swat.

However, relatively relaxed checking and more lanes for the vehicles have now considerably reduced the waiting time.

After manoeuvering through the long and spectacular Malakand Pass one reaches Batkhela, then Mingora. From Mingora, one can continue on the old N95 on the right bank of River Swat until they reach Kalam. The approximately 60 kilometre journey usually takes up to two-and-a half hours due to heavy traffic on the narrow road, which is in very bad condition.

Another way to get to Kalam is to take the newly metalled Matta road. However, while the first hour-and-a-half is a luxury ride, the stretch of road between Bahrain and Kalam is in appalling condition. The virtually non-existent road is more of a dirt track, with deep ditches and pools of water.

This gruelling experience begins immediately after crossing the Bahrain Bazaar and continues till a couple of kilometres before you hit Kalam. Although repair work is currently underway on the section of the road that was mostly damaged in the 2010 floods, the repairs are generally so shoddy that it is often washed away by the rains, snowfall and landslides.

Connectivity can also pose a problem to those visting Swat. For those who wish to stay in touch with friends and family back home, they have to carry active mobile SIM cards of assorted operators as some networks do not provide service in that valley. Tourists, who need to stay connected with their workplace, should know that PTCL does not have any internet service in Kalam and the only means of staying connected is through the weak EDGE/GPRS networks provided by the mobile phone operators.

However, my advice to all tourists is: disconnect yourselves from whatever is happening back home in order to fully enjoy the sights and sounds of Swat.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s July issue.

Arshad Yusufzai has worked for Voice of America and has published in The News International and Central Asia Online.