When the Pakistani Taliban killed 10 foreign climbers at the base camp of Nanga Parbat, one of the world’s highest peaks, on Saturday, it shocked the climbing world – but it also imperiled the tourism industry that is the economic lifeline for the remote westernmost edge of the Himalayas.
Five of the world’s 14 highest peaks, known as the “eight-thousanders,” are found in Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistani-administered Kashmir. The peaks include K2, the second highest mountain in the world, and Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest. The towering peaks cut through the valleys of an area famed for its natural beauty, and attract hundreds of trekkers and climbers to the region each year.
Gilgit-Baltistan had been largely considered beyond the reach of militant groups like the Pakistani Taliban, which claimed responsibility for the attack. But, over the past decade, the climbing industry in the area has struggled as instability in the rest of Pakistan has kept all but the most adventurous tourists away.
Tourism in Pakistan has been in a general decline over the past 12 years, says Mirza Riaz, secretary general of Pakistan Economy Watch, a think tank. In 2007, revenue from tourism was $151 million. By 2012 it had declined to $101 million, according to data from the group.
“Our economy is already going down due to terrorism and security,” says Mr. Riaz, “But this latest incident will have a grave impact. The government is doing its best to invite foreign businesses [to Pakistan] but the embassies [in Islamabad] are now giving advice not to come.”
The militant group claimed it had set up a new wing to target foreigners as revenge for the US drone strikes on militants. This does not bode well for Pakistan, say analysts, but it is particularly bad news for the tourism industry.
Revival of the tourism industry
The tourism in Gilgit-Baltistan was just beginning to show signs of a revival. The start of the Afghan war blocked what had been a popular overland tourist route and as instability spread to Pakistan the tourists all but stopped coming. But thanks to tireless promotion – and reassurances that nothing had ever happened to foreigners in Gilgit-Baltistan – by local tour operators and incentives offered by the region's Tourism Department, the prospects for the tourist industry were looking better.
Muhammad Ali, managing director of Adventure Pakistan, a tour company that organizes climbing expeditions in the area, used to spend most of the winter in Europe, touring between vacation trade shows and climbing conferences promoting Gilgit-Baltistan as a climbing destination.
“We always tell the tourists that we have never had an incident,” Mr. Ali says. “Now we have lost face,” he says adding that he would always say that Gilgit-Baltistan was different from the rest of Pakistan because it was safe. “This morning I received e-mails from my agents [in Europe]. They say that they will watch the situation and decided if they will send tourists again.” Some tour agencies reported getting e-mails with cancellations.
In an attempt to attract more climbers to the region, in January the Tourism Department of Gilgit-Baltistan announced a 40 percent discount on the licenses that climbing expeditions have to buy to climb the famed peaks of the Himalayas.
The gamble paid off. Nearly 50 groups applied for licenses up from 34 in 2012, according to Yasir Hussain, deputy director of the Tourism Department of Gilgit-Baltistan. Three licenses were issued for Nanga Parbat.
The money from the licenses and the jobs created by the adventure tourism industry are an essential source of income in the region that is otherwise reliant on exports of fresh and dried fruit, a sector that is also floundering due to a lack of infrastructure investment.
Around 15,000 to 20,000 tourists, including mountaineers, came to Pakistan each year during the summer, and Pakistan's Tour Operators' Association estimates that each one of them spends thousands of dollars.
Who climbing tourists in Pakistan employ
There are no official estimates of the size of Gilgit-Baltistan’s economy. The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, a government office, does not gather economic data on Gilgit-Baltistan because the region is only under the administrative control of Pakistan and is not a province.
Economists say, however, that the region is lagging far behind the rest of the country. A visit to the area and the limited development is apparent – though the region’s natural beauty and the generosity of the people is staggering.
Each climbing expedition that comes to Gilgit-Baltistan tends to be made up of 10 to 14 climbers, with each of those climbers employing around 12 local porters. The porters help carry the climbers’ luggage and food, and make trips down from base camp to get supplies – the climbers spend over a month on the mountain doing a series of acclimatization climbs before making a bid for the summit.
These porters earn around Rs2,000 ($20) per day – and those that support climbers at the high altitude camps beyond base camp, much more. While the work is seasonal, the wage is much higher than the average local wage of just Rs700 ($7) a day.
The climbers also employ cooks and drivers, as well as a network of support staff through the local tour operator that helps coordinate the climb.
Faqeer Mohammad, economics professor at the Karakorum International University in Gilgit-Baltistan, says that the climbers and trekkers inject much needed money into the economy. They don’t only employ local men as guides, but they also stay in hotels, patron restaurants, and buy local handicrafts, he explained.
Mr. Hussain of the Tourism department expects that a lot of climbing expeditions that were planning trips to Gilgit-Baltistan this summer will now cancel. The climbing season had only just started meaning that thousands will lose most of their year’s wages. Unemployment, which is already very high, will likely soar.
“We have made a lot of efforts to revive the industry over the last decade,” he said, “Now all our efforts are idle. They [the attackers] have destroyed it in one second.”
Retired Col. Manzoor Hussain, president of the Alpine Club of Pakistan, was more optimistic in his assessment. “While we have mountains to climb, people will come and climb,” he says, though he acknowledged that this would not be in the numbers that the tour operators hoped for.
"I don't think I will bring people to Pakistan again," says Aleksandra Dzik, an expedition leader from Poland who was at a higher camp on Nanga Parbat when Saturday's killings occurred. One of her expedition's members, a Lithuanian, was among the dead.