NEELUM VALLEY: 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 local 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.
But with a new road built by the Chinese after the 2005 earthquake killed 73,000 people and a ceasefire holding with India, locals 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 kilometres 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 neighbouring Kashmir, few 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.
"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 ceasefire has held since November 2003.
"This area is very peaceful and there is no fear of terrorism," said Waqar.
Taliban attacks in the northwest and the impact of crippling power cuts pushing people towards 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 locals 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 cancellations.
"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 per cent because the elite class, who come here, feel insecure, but no one has cancelled 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 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.
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Please don't turn that area into another Murree.
wat a place neelum valley I must seay I have been there a lot many times true heaven on earth last time I was there in floods of 2010 there is a need to develop hotels and other infrastructure there now
Its good to see a couple of feel-good articles sneak up here and there around here.... :)
I visited there 3 weeks back, The ultimate points of Neelum valley are Taobat, Kel and adjoining areas including Chitta katha lake. The road from Keran ahead needs to be developed as well as hotels, most of families return from Keran or sharda, and don't even know what they have missed in kashmir.
I visited Neelum Valley in June 2013. It is a lovely place to go especially for those who likes waterfalls, and climbing mountains. Areas to visit in neelum valley are Kel and Taobut.
My friends and I visited Kashmir and had lovely time. My dear friend took very nice photos am happy to share with Express Tribune for slideshow.
My friends and I visited Kashmir and we had lovely time.
A polite rejoinder to Express Tribune; Pictures speak louder than Words;
Your article is good, but too much verbiage and unnecessary traffic of words. It would have been nice if a slide show of many pictures would have been included for readers to appreciate and look at my Pakistan to see how beautiful it is and what we should do to preserve and protect it;
My relatives visited neelum valley and adjoining areas and while credit must be given to Chinese for the road construction, USA should also be thanked for their assistance to small to mid sized hotel owners
No to extremism and terrorism; mantra of Altaf Hussain echoed by 98% Pakistanis. Great to see tourism flourishing again. Hoping and praying it stays.