ISSN 1108-8931


Year 6 - Issue 76 - Dec 05

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The ECOCLUB Interview
Index of Interviews

Agha Iqrar Haroon
on Ecotourism in Pakistan, after the Earthquake
"This is the time to achieve many goals"

Agha Iqrar HaroonAgha Iqrar Haroon first joined the tourism sector as a tourist guide at the age of 15. He then worked as a journalist for Pakistan's leading English newspapers. He went on to study for a Masters in History and a second Masters in Group Philosophy, and a diploma in Documentary and News Production, while continuing to work as a tourist guide. Between 1997-2000 he held a senior post in the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation, part of the Ministry of Tourism. In July 1998, he founded Ecotourism Society Pakistan, and serves as its President ever since. Iqrar is a tourism research scholar with a number of published international papers and is now pursuing a PhD in Sustainable Mountain Development.

How greatly impacted are ecotourism communities and businesses in Pakistan from the recent Earthquake?

The October 8 Earthquake badly hit Pakistani-held Kashmir and N.W.F.P., causing the death of around 76,000 people. The areas of Balakot, Ghari Habibullah and Bagh were popular domestic tourism destinations. The economy of Balakot has always been based on tourism being the gateway of Kaghan Valley which is the most beautiful Valley of Pakistan. Therefore one can easily understand the impact of earthquake on tourism and ecotourism communities and businesses.

Are there any initiatives coming up from Ecotourism Society of Pakistan, and how can the ecotourism community around the world best contribute to these?

Ecotourism Society Pakistan (ESP) believes that this disaster can be changed into opportunity. Disaster has promoted and publicized Balakot all over the world although Balakot was not as popular destination as Gilgit or Hunza among foreign tourists although it is considered as heaven for domestic tourists due to short haul tourism. Balakot is around 210 Km from Islamabad. In its proposal to ministry of tourism province of N.W.F.P, ESP has suggested one tourism school for children who lost their family and one vocational institute for widows for developing their skills in embroiders and dry-fruit industry. Although ESP does not take funding or grants (local or foreign), however now it is ready to start these two institutions in case any international organization sponsors ESP for these initiatives.

Regarding how international ecotourism community can support, I am of the view that they should support such initiative which can directly benefit local community. Moreover I would like to mention another very important point regarding international ecotourism or tourism community. I am of the view that areas like Balakot are and will be exposed to foreign cultures massively due to foreign aid activities and otherwise. This situation can create a “culture shock” to innocent young children and women who are now vulnerable to social changes due to death of their male partners and elders. Therefore I request international communities to respect customs and culture of locals while meeting them and working there otherwise there are chances for "westernization of these areas".

Every year the world celebrates International Mountain Day (December 11th), and this year's theme is: 'Sustainable Tourism for Poverty Alleviation in Mountain Areas.' An International Day by itself of course can not be blamed for the lack of progress on any topic, but are you satisfied that enough was being done to alleviate poverty in mountain areas through tourism before the earthquake, and indeed now, in the case of Pakistan?

My candid views are that “enough was NOT being done to alleviate poverty in mountain areas through tourism before the earthquake”. Till today, local economies are in the hands multinational firms, government owned tourism establishments and private sector hailing from low lands. You can find countless examples from Nepal, India and Pakistan. Regarding “ritual” like Mountain Day or Environment Day, I am of the view that these days are celebrated mostly in big cities and in mega hotels or air-conditioned halls of UN agencies. Did International Mountain Year and International Ecotourism year play any role to benefit economy of mountain areas? Does there any decline in the graph of poverty in mountain areas comparing to year 2000? Staging functions, pasting banners, holding seminars or walking on the streets of capital of Pakistan and chanting slogans for the rights of mountain people can not provide bread to a poor man of Kaghan. I am of the view that celebrating days without involving local mountain communities at grass-root level can not work. We need to tailor strategies to accelerate local economies by watching where the shares of tourism activities are going? ESP is of the view that local communities must have their direct share in revenue generated by tourism in the respective areas.

You once wrote that border forces are sometimes even trying to shot down birds crossing man-made borders. So do you now see any chance for reconciliation through tourism in the aftermath of the earthquake in Kashmir? What about ambitious regional tourism initiatives such as SAARC, did they ever fly off the ground? And as head of the Ecotourism Society of Pakistan, what would you like to say to your counterparts in neighbouring countries?

Yes. If both countries are honest to do so; this is time to achieve many goals. ESP wrote letters during SAARC summit in Islamabad to Prime ministers of all the SAARC countries, requesting them to work for tourism. Only Nepali government took seriously and managed to add tourism development into summit declaration. It was decided that a year would be celebrated as a Tourism Year. Nothing has been done so far. Pakistan and India opened five more points in Kashmir valley only for Kashmiris of both sides last week and these points can be used as five new gates to tourism in case Indians and Pakistani are allowed to cross and visit scenic areas of both Kashmirs. Regarding SAARC, I am of the view that it is nothing but a dead wood.

Domestically, is there a meaningful role that ecotourism can play in solving real problems in the now radicalised mountain/tribal areas of Pakistan?

Yes, if local tribesmen and radical people are directly benefited from ecotourism activities.

While some feel that it may be too early or a luxury to discuss the form that reconstruction, in tourism in particular, will take following the earthquake, developers feel otherwise: reconstruction is already taking place and a newspaper reported today that Muzaffarabad is to obtain it's first 5-star, 200-room, state of the art hotel, by March 31, 2006, "the first ever five-star hotel in Kashmir" So is this the right way forward you feel?

Do you think that local poor community can construct 200 room hotel within next four months in Muzafarabad? Investors are coming to exploit again and ESP is categorically against such activities of mass tourism handling by investors from “outside the area”.

In the words of your compatriot Irfan Hussain, an outspoken journalist, Pakistan today receives few tourists apart from "a handful of sheiklets who come annually to slaughter the few endangered houbara bustards". The Guardian also reported recently on the increasing number of transplant tourists, i.e. foreigners travelling to Pakistan for transplants obtained from poor villagers. How concerned are you about these unwholesome forms of tourism, and what can be done to attract ecotourists?

I consider both activities as illegal and unacceptable. Regarding attracting ecotourists, I am of the view that southern areas of Punjab and Balochistan are wonderful places for bird and animal watchers and there is a dire need to market these areas outside Pakistan. The former Chief Minister of Balochistan Jan Muhammad Jamali had been kind enough to listen to ESP proposals and followed many of them for the promotion of these areas.

You are outspoken about the role of NGOs in Pakistan. What is particularly troubling you with reference to NGOs working in Tourism and Environment - lack of transparency, interest or plain inefficiency? Are there any bright exceptions?

Quite expected question this is. What is troubling me; is the core issue. Lack of transparency and monitoring by donors is one of the important issues. Majority of NGOs sells 'terminologies'. If you remember that before International Year of Ecotourism, a large number of NGOs cropped up in Pakistan claiming that “they want to develop ecotourism and they are doing ecotourism”. They published new "Terms of Reference" adding to their terminology the "development of ecotourism". They thought that some big money would arrive from donors for ecotourism year. Unfortunately no big money came and they were disappointed and left the arena. Now same are working in “environment and rehabilitation of earthquake areas” nowadays. Regarding environment NGOs, I would say that they forget the major actor and component of environment - that is human being. I am of the view that NGOs should work as supporters of communities while NGOs usually work as second fiddle of bureaucracy in Pakistan. Moreover NGOs working in environment work 'closely' with local leadership or what you can call important people of respective areas. Mostly these local leaderships are actually timber mafia. Can a poor man cut 100 trees without the permission of local authorities and how he can transfer these trees to city unless he has resources and contacts? International Environment agencies and NGOs are working with huge budget since long in Pakistan however forests are vanishing- de-forestation has increased during the last two decades. Why they have failed to control logging in all five valleys of Pakistan?

How would you describe the position of women working in tourism in Pakistan, better or worse than other economic sectors and what role can Ecotourism play for them, if any?

Ecotourism can play the greatest role for economic uplift of women if they are directly involved in tourism activities. They are at the moment out of the arena. Little bit of training and opportunity to them can put them in a leading role as cooks, guides and owners of small entreprises.

Overall, how satisfied are you with Tourism policy in Pakistan in the last 5 years. Have any of ESP's proposals been adopted or have you made any successful interventions to stop inappropriate policies?

There is a long way to go. During the last 5 years, ESP managed to develop first-ever course of Ecotourism run by Ministry of Tourism Government of Punjab at Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management Lahore. It was the breakthrough for us. Now this course is a part of diploma. Ministry of tourism government of Pakistan with our initiatives accepted the involvement local people in tourism activities by buying local stocks for motels of PTDC instead of buying food items available in local areas from big city. Basically it took much time to us to realize Ministry of Tourism that sustainable tourism and ecotourism are the most appropriate paths which can provide security and friendly environments for tourists. If locals of Kaghan valley are benefited from tourism activities, they will respect and look after tourists.

From all your posts as a government official, a journalist, a TV reporter and producer, a travel guide, a tourism consultant, which one have you enjoyed most, and when did you feel you had the greatest opportunity to change things?

You know my career as tourist guide started at the young age of 15. It was time of early 80s. I consider this time the most wonderful and golden of life. I worked as government official at higher level as Consultant for the Ministry of Tourism at Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) and then as Consultant of Pakistan Austrian Institute for Tourism and Hotel Management (PAITHOM). Being the government official, I tried successfully to open new horizons for tourism, developing new maps and new destinations and most of all tried to help poor stakeholders like cooks, porters, drivers and guides. Being a guide sometimes I used to live with these poor and powerless stakeholders who are directly or indirectly exploited by private sector or government sector. I knew their problems and I knew solutions. I was fortunate that the then Prime Minister and Federal Minister for tourism not only listened but passed orders on my recommendations. Guides rules were amended. Daily wages system was discourage and porters were provided certain rights. I am more than satisfied for my role as consultant to PTDC. TV production and journalism is my bread and butter and of course I used both media to explore and expose the beauty of Pakistan to the outside world. However I would like to work as tourist guide and tourism consultant more than anything else.

Is there anything else you would like to say, perhaps about Ecotourism Society Pakistan's future plans?

I am pragmatic and optimist that one day ESP will open Ecotourism School for poor and needy young people and women of mountain areas. We do not have resources and funds however we have commitment and energies. One day I am sure some one would come and say: "come Iqrar make your dream a reality".

Finally, what would you say to tourists who would like to visit Pakistan but hesitate to do so?

I would tell them that human beings today are vulnerable to accidents everywhere on earth. We can avoid them but we can not stop them. People of Pakistan are very friendly and liberal. However you should plan your tour by taking suggestions from professional people. You should avoid visiting rough areas without informing local authorities and without getting proper cover. Mountain people are simple, harmless and accommodative all over the world. There are cases tourists act as “over confident” and they travel without proper information and they get involve in some troubles although there are very rare cases in Pakistan. I would suggest them to plan their tours with the support of professionals before visiting Pakistan.

Thank you very much.

Ecotourism Society Pakistan (ESP) is a group of professionals, dedicated to the cause of integrated tourism research and poor people living in mountain areas. ESP mainly concentrates on problem-oriented multidisciplinary field research in tourism, distribute literature on tourism and offers consultancy. ESP also offers ecotours all over Pakistan for families, researchers, students and scholars providing them in depth knowledge about culture, heritage and people of mountains. It also promotes small stakeholders in the field of tourism by promoting their products through ESP networking.

If you are able to assist Ecotourism Society Pakistan with its earthquake relief efforts and other projects, please visit or send an email or write to: ESP, 5 Haroon Road, Saroba Gardens Ismail Nagar 17 KM Ferozpur Road Lahore Pakistan.

Find the complete list of ECOCLUB Interviews here



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