Deserted look of tourist destinations: COVID-19 pandemic hits KP’s tourism sector:

By Fakhar Alam

NATHIAGALI, May 19 (APP):The season of hovering clouds and erratic rainfalls over the snow-covered lofty mountains in the tourist destination of Galiyat valleys has arrived with more charming natural beauty, but this time, the breathtaking weather of the area seems out of reach from the public due to the looming fear of COVID-19 pandemic.

The hide and seek between clouds and sun followed by light-to-heavy rainfalls in the picturesque valleys during May has made the weather extremely pleasant. But the visits of tourists have sharply declined to the hilly station clad in maple, walnut and pine trees since March 18, 2020 due to coronavirus.

Located at an altitude of about 8,205 feet on 80 kilometers area between Abbottabad and Murree on Himalya mountains range, Galiyat valleys comprising Nathiagali, Dongagali, Ayubia, Changagali, Bagnotar, Baragali, Harnai and Thandyani, which were flooded with foreign and domestic tourists in May last year, were now showing a deserted look as all small and luxury hotels were closed since mid-March of this year.

These boutique style buildings of British era are located in panoramic elevation from where visitors could see the splendid natural beauty, waterfalls, biodiversity and mountainous beauty of Kalabagh, Bagnotar, Jhika Gali, Nathiagali, Dongagali, Baragali, Thandyani and Ayubia with ease in a single day, wore deserted look.

The pandemic has crippled hotels and travels industry in Galiyat where from Charpaye (bed) to five stars hotels, guest houses, motels, Govt rest houses, cottages, parks, zigzag hiking and trekking trails were closed for tourists.

Famous Dunga Gali-Ayubia, Mukshpuri Tops and Mirajani hikking trails between Nathiagali-Dongagali on about 9500 feet height, which attracted tourists to see the amazing beauty of Kashmir while passing through thick vegetations and pine trees, were now the bastion of wildlife. The adventure lovers often used these hikking trails of British era to enjoy the mesmerizing beauty of Galiyat, Kashmir, Harnoi River, Thandyani and Jehlum River.

It is heartbreaking for tourists to see the closure of Ayubia chairlift, which is a main source of attraction providing about five kilometers long ride to the visitors with great fun and laughter besides horse and camels ride.

Talking to APP, former Ambassador, Manzoorul Haq said, “The Galiyat scenic beauty and fresh air besides its colonial era walking trails have always attracted me to spend sometimes there during hot summer. This year perhaps I will be unable to visit my dream place due to COVID-19”. He lamented that had there no COVID-19 crisis, the Galiyat could have attracted hundreds of thousands of adventurers, mountaineers and nature lovers from foreign countries this year after the award-winning UK-based travel magazine, Condé Nast Traveler listed Pakistan as the top holiday and adventure travels site among 20 holiday destinations across the world for 2020 besides the successful visit of British royal couple that enhanced our country’s soft image globally.

Manzoor said many small and medium enterprises related to tourism sector were at stake and urgent measures should be taken to support the dwindling tourism and travel sectors being a major source of income for people of Galiyat. “Tourists guides, hotels waiters, horse and camel ride services, balloon shooting, coffee machine vendors, roadside cabins, chairlift workers etc are at high risk of losing jobs due to COVID-19 travels restrictions,” he said. He urged the government, tourism ministry, PTDC and KP tourism corporation to announce special financial package for jobless tourism workers.

Raza Habib, Director General, Galiyat Development Authority (GDA) said, “There was no doubt that COVID-19 has badly affected tourism sector in Galiyat. Around 220 hotels including 156 registered have been closed since March 18, 2020 for foreign and domestic tourists due to travel restrictions owing to coronavirus pandemic”. He said, “Peak season of tourists in Galiyat starts from June 1 and continues till August 30, attracting influx of tourists from across Pakistan and globe.

Raza Habib said about 1.5 million to 2 million tourists had visited Galiyat during these three months last year and the same number was expected this summer season but unfortunately COVID-19 struck. The DG feared a loss of Rs one billion to tourism sector of KP if travelling restrictions continued during next three months in Galiyat.

He said GDA has started work on standard operating procedures (SOPs) for hotels, restaurants, rest houses, motels, transporters, travels guides, tours operators besides others sectors attached with tourism industry and would be implemented in phases after lifting of travels restrictions. In first phase, he said priorities would be given to those tourists, who made bookings in hotels for lengthy stay in Galiyat. “The bookings in hotels and rest houses would be shortened to 60pc and day travellers would not be allowed during the first phase to enter Galiyat,” he maintained.

Disinfection spray in all hotels and rest houses, use of safety masks and gloves for visitors and staffers beside others precautionary measures as notified by the Govt would be made mandatory, he said. He said the services of hotels and rest houses would be monitored as per SOPs and would be sealed in case of violation of Govt orders. The DG said a comprehensive plan has been prepared for Government with recommendations for interest free loans and relaxation in taxes to hotel industry and other tourism related sectors affected by COVID-19 lockdown.