Agha Iqrar Haroon
on Ecotourism in Pakistan, after the Earthquake
"This is the time to achieve many goals"
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.
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.
there any initiatives coming up from Ecotourism Society of Pakistan,
and how can the ecotourism community around the world best contribute
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
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".
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
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
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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?
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
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.
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
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".
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.
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
www.ecotourism.org.pk or send an email
or write to: ESP, 5 Haroon Road, Saroba Gardens Ismail Nagar 17 KM
Ferozpur Road Lahore Pakistan.