K-P’s tourism industry takes coronavirus hit

Hotels in Swat Valley shuttered, workers sent home

Umer Farooq March 24, 2020
PHOTO: REUTERS

PESHAWAR: In a world turned topsy-turvy and disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the tourism industry appears to have taken the worst hit since World War II. While the number of coronavirus cases in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is still in the twenties, the nascent provincial tourism industry seems to be in the doldrums.

Tourists will now have wait for the coronavirus to settle before they can enjoy the scenic views from their hotels in Swat Valley, a spot reclaimed by the Pakistan Army after a protracted battle with insurgents.

According to one estimate, the valley, known more widely in recent times for the near-fatal shooting of activist Malala Yousafzai, has a cluster of 400 hotels, which employ over 23,000 workers. But the raging coronavirus scare has forced owners to shut these properties down, furloughing tens of thousands of hotel workers. Up until January, Swat was generating a monthly profit of Rs.0.6 million, according to one expert from the tourism industry.

With international travel restricted, and domestic travellers forced to stay at home in most cities across Pakistan, hotel owners had no choice but to shutter the properties.

“Swat always has visitors from all over Pakistan. But over the past few days, we have not seen any visitors the streets are empty,” said Zahid Khan, President of the Hotel Association in Swat.

A lush vale once favoured by honeymooners and nicknamed the “Switzerland of South Asia”, Swat now resembles a ghost town.

Business in the valley, according to Khan, has come to a grinding halt as the world scrambles to contain coronavirus. “Not everyone in Swat owns a hotel. Much of the population makes a living by providing services to hotels that dot the valley,” said Khan.

Recalling the insurgency that gripped the picturesque valley a few years ago, Khan said, “Last time they shuttered hotels was during the crackdown against militants.”

“Our fight against terrorism had a known enemy. Coronavirus is an invisible enemy,” Khan quipped, adding that the pandemic has instilled fear.

In the wake of an outbreak of coronavirus, which has claimed more than 10,000 lives, K-P has also lost its hopes of making the most of the upcoming religious tourism event in the province.

Dotted with sacred Buddhist, Hindu, and Sikh sites, K-P was hoping to make the most of religious tourism events in the province. But panic and fear forced the provincial government to postpone one of the biggest events, the Gandhara Festival.

The four-day-long event, designed to provide exposure to K-P’s heritage sites, was expected to bring more than 60 international delegates and many pilgrims to the province.

“With the world gripped by panic and fear, we had no option but to postpone the event indefinitely,” said one department of archaeology official.

Expressing optimism, the official said, “The event will happen once the pandemic ebbs.”

According to Dr Abdul Samad, Director Archeology and Museums, the festival events were scheduled to take place all over the provincial capital.

The inaugural event, a flagship project of the K-P government, he said, was extremely important for bringing the province back on the tourism map. “This would have brought scholars, academics, and individuals from all walks of life to K-P.”

While the ultimate impact is difficult to predict at this time given the fluidity of the situation, officials of the K-P tourism department believe they will be able to revive the industry, once the virus is defeated.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 24th, 2020.

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