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Why Pakistanis In The Otherworldly Highlands Aren't Happy To See Pakistani Tourists

Trash from an informal dump in far northern Pakistan is frequently incinerated, sending up plumes of foul-smelling smoke right near a glacial lake frequented by tourists.
Diaa Hadid NPR
Trash from an informal dump in far northern Pakistan is frequently incinerated, sending up plumes of foul-smelling smoke right near a glacial lake frequented by tourists.

The residents of Murtazabad, a village in the highlands of Pakistan, are welcoming of strangers. On a recent day, they proffered passing visitors a yak meat porridge they had made for a religious celebration. They indulgently smiled as a horde of Thai tourists raced into one of their orchards and posed with piles of red and yellow apples.

But some days, their patience wears thin.

And those days are happening more often as this once-remote province becomes a wildly popular destination not only for foreign tourists posing in their apple orchards, but also for Pakistanis who come from the plains below.

"Most tourists are wonderful, but some are just so dirty. They come here to see our beautiful region, and they leave their trash behind," says Benazir Jamal, a 25-year-old gym teacher, who said her village organized a committee to clean up after tourists. "Not all fingers of the hand are the same," Jamal said, referring to Pakistanis visiting the area.

Pointed opinions about Pakistani tourists can be heard across the far northern territory of Gilgit-Baltistan, an otherworldly place of snow-capped peaks, glaciers, rivers and orchards. It spotlights the frictions between Pakistan's multiple ethnic and religious groups, and the challenges facing the country as it tries to lure more visitors. Signs are pasted throughout residential areas forbidding photography and entrance to tourists. Other signs urge them, in English and Urdu, to pick up their trash.

"The problem is basically, unfortunately, and I am sorry to say this, especially our Pakistani tourists. They have not right manners," says Aqeela Bano, who heads the Ciqam Project, a network of organizations run by women, including a carpentry workshop and a café and hotel.

Tensions emerged after domestic tourists nearly outnumbered the territory's 1.5 million locals over the past two summers, according to Usman Ahmed, commissioner of the Gilgit division, one of the area's highest-ranking officials. There were no official figures for this past summer, but it was even busier, officials said.

"We were not ready for that," Ahmed says. He noted that a decade ago, just over 50,000 domestic tourists visited.

Only one town in the territory has a sewage system. So more visitors means more human waste washes into the tributaries that feed the Indus River, Pakistan's main water source. The area does not have regular trash collection, so the extra garbage generated by tourists was dumped into the river or incinerated at an informal dump near a glacial lake — frequented by the same tourists. On a recent day, crows picked through smoldering trash that emitted foul fumes.

To accommodate tourists, there is a construction boom. Enormous hotels now loom over some villages. Concrete flophouses flash neon signs. Ahmed is worried, he says, because the construction industry is loosely regulated.

"We don't want to become a concrete jungle," he says.

Domestic tourists began pouring in about six years ago, Ahmed says. The sudden surge is owed to a convergence of factors: sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites in far northern Pakistan was quelled by authorities, making the road safe for visitors. The road itself — a highway of hairpin turns — was improved, making it easier to drive up. And tales of the area's beauty spread through word of mouth and social media, according to both tourists and officials.

The tourists include Mohammad Afzal and his wife, Nazira, from the southern city of Larkana, who said they had brought their extended family of 22 people for a weeklong stay in the region. "We saw a video and were like, 'Let's go!' " Nazira says, as they passed around hot mugs of chai on a freezing day.

"We went to the China border, and the kids saw snow. They were so excited," she says.

Nazira, like many Pakistani tourists interviewed, says she was horrified to hear that locals found them to be unclean.

"We throw our trash in the bin," she insists. But at the next table, another group of Pakistani tourists left their pizza boxes and plastic cups of tea on a table, ignoring the large trash can nearby.

Regardless of how the majority of Pakistani tourists behave, clearly there are problems. Some of the city's bazaars are pasted with signs pleading with tourists to use trash cans and to not take photos. Residents said that during the summer, visiting Pakistani men snapped photos of local women without their permission and shared them online.

"We didn't put [these warning signs] up when it was just foreign tourists," says Nazir Ali, who guards a mosque. "But when domestic tourists came, they misused the pictures. A lot of women weren't comfortable. They were scared. They don't know how the picture will be used."

Ali says the issue really emerged when residents found images of local women on social media with commentary that suggested they were not honorable. Women in far northern Pakistan don't always cover their hair, they have a tradition of working in public as farmers, shopkeepers and shepherds, and their girls play sports in public — a stark contrast to the far more conservative plains below and even to other communities in the mountains.

The patron of a tiny restaurant, Lal Shehzadi, 38, acknowledged cultural tensions with domestic tourists. She says some of them have asked if her husband was dead, and if not, why she worked, because it was so unusual in the plains.

As she served local delicacies like savory apricot soup, yak curry, salty tea and mutton pies, Shehzadi says she often retorted: "Why do you cover your women?"

Other residents noted the upside to domestic tourism. Bano of the Ciqam Project said the influx has allowed the network to employ 25 female carpenters to supply window frames, doors and wooden designs for new buildings.

Musician Zia Ul Karim, 25, says the tourists helped revive interest in folkloric music by requesting it to be performed at local shows.

He talks of "melodies which are almost dying" because of the "lack of importance given to them by people." Speaking after a performance, he said sometimes it takes a stranger to remind people of what they should hold dear.

In a territory once nearly entirely reliant on farming, Mubaraka, 13, listed the ways tourism has bettered the lives of residents in their poor, one-road village, where children ran around in flip-flops in heavy-jacket weather. Tourists bought their farm produce. Shops sold more goods. There was work in the industry.

But domestic tourists also upset her, she said. She gestured to a meadow where goats graze, overlooking pointy, snowy peaks. A few weeks ago, she cleaned it up after tourists.

Officials said they were also trying to lure high-dollar foreign visitors — with some success, like the Thai tourists who tumbled into that apple orchard in Murtazabad. Piayooan Yuentiakul, 55, from Bangkok, said Pakistan was a "top of the bucket list" among his friends because of the stunning red and yellow fall colors.

To attract more visitors from other Asian countries, authorities advertise the area's ancient Buddhist heritage. To lure adventure tourists, they host activities like a desert car rally, yak polo and one of the world's highest-altitude bike races, as well as offer the chance to climb some of the world's tallest mountains.

Figures given by Ahmed, the commissioner, suggested a slow but steady climb of foreign tourists to Murtazabad, reaching just over 10,000 last year — a tiny proportion of the 1.2 million foreign tourists who arrived in Pakistan in total, according to the country's 2018 Travel & Tourism Economic Impact report.

Foreign tourists say they are delighted by Pakistan, like German visitor Carsten Korfmacher. He had been hiking on glaciers and trekking through base camps of some of the world's tallest mountains. The best part was "people are so friendly," he says. Twice, he said, he had been invited to attend local weddings. "I wish people were so friendly in my country," he says.

Nothing though, could beat the enthusiasm of Daniel Porter, from Britain, who just finished a boat ride on a glacial lake. Smoothing back his dreadlocks, Porter said people kept inviting him to stay with them. "Everyone just smiles," he says. "Everyone wants to help you."

Locals agree. As long as you pick up your own trash.

Nazim Ullah Baig contributed to this report.

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