Gilgit-Baltistan Agitated Over Transfer of Tourism Sites

Dozens of guest houses and tourist sites, given on lease to Green Tourism Limited, could divest G-B citizens from their livelihood in the area's nascent tourism industry

Gilgit-Baltistan Agitated Over Transfer of Tourism Sites

While the federal government has somehow managed to quell the public uproar and violent protests in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) by "accepting" the protesters' demands, there is a growing concern that analogous resentment could erupt in Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B). This unrest is anticipated in response to the transfer of around 44 tourism sites to a new private company, Green Tourism Limited -believed to be a military entity established under the guidance of the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC).

The list of tourism sites, including guest houses and motels, being leased out to the company, became public soon after an agreement was signed between the G-B government and the company. The public flooded social media with strong criticism and opposition to the initiative, which, locals argued, would deprive them of participating in the tourism industry—an economic lifeline for the region.

Meanwhile, leaders of the religio-political party Majlis-e-Wahdatul Muslimeen (MWM) and other political and civil society representatives, including the Awami Action Committee Gilgit-Baltistan and the Das Khareem Supreme Council of Astore, have announced strong opposition to the initiative. Though the government, through its spokespersons, has attempted to explain and convince the people that the move will facilitate local and foreign investment in the tourism industry, it seems that they are failing to convince the public, which fears the permanent handing over of the important sites to a private firm or the army.

'Occupying' Gilgit-Baltistan's Tourist Sites

The 44 tourism sites in Gilgit-Baltistan leased out to Green Tourism Limited for 30 years include seven Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) motels, 20 Communications and Works Department (C&WD) guest houses, and 17 Forest Department sites.

The properties of C&WD include guest houses in Phandar, Gupis, Naltar, Karimabad, Hopper, Sumayar, Chillas, Babusar, Rama, Eidgah, Minimerg, Kachura, Shigar, Baltoro Skardu, Hamidgarh, Khaplu, Singul, Passu, Thalichi, and Chilam. Forest Department properties include the Wildlife Hut Naltar, Forest Hut Naltar, Dehee Khunjerab, Babusar, Rama, Chilam, Old Forest Building, Kargah, Jutal, Phandar, Gahkuch, Borith Lake, Buner Das, Hoto, Olding, and Sailing. 

According to reports, some of the most significant places being leased to Green Tourism Limited include:

  • The Baltoro Guest House in Skardu, previously utilised by officials from other districts visiting the Skardu headquarters for official duties;

  • The PWD Guest House in Chilas;

  • The Forest Guest House in Chilam: the Guest House serves as the entry point to Deosai National Park from the Astore side and previously functioned as both the office and residence for the park staff;

  • The Forest Rest House Dhee Khunjerab, which serves as the entry point to Khunjerab National Park and previously functioned as both the office and residence for the park staff;

  • Fifty-five kanals of Forest Park in Skardu, the sole recreational park for the public in Skardu; 

  • The 450 kanals of the Hoto Plantation, the biggest plantation in Skardu; and

  • 7.92 acres of land in Phander, Ghizer, a significant tourist attraction in Gilgit Baltistan renowned for its beauty and lakes.

In addition to the above, dozens of guest houses and tourist sites are being leased to Green Tourism Limited.

 ‘Green Tourism’ in Gilgit-Baltistan

The Securities and Exchange Commission's (SECP) official website shows that Green Tourism was registered at the Company Registration Office in Islamabad on January 26, 2024. An official of Green Tourism Limited claimed that despite having immense potential, Pakistan lacks a robust tourism ecosystem, which has the potential to generate up to $30 billion annually by 2030. The official claimed that their projects will prioritise local human resources and aim to create 300 direct and approximately 3,000–4,000 indirect jobs in G-B.

As per the copy of the agreement, the Gilgit-Baltistan government's secretary for tourism, Rana Muhammad Saleem Afzal, signed the agreement on behalf of the GB government, while Arsalan Ahmed Malik signed on behalf of Green Tourism Limited as the second party on April 23, 2024.

The military's role in the Green Tourism company is limited to "providing the necessary support to build confidence"

To harness and promote G-B's vast tourism potential, Green Tourism aims to implement comprehensive global marketing strategies. Moreover, the company claims that all projects will adhere to environmentally sustainable principles, ensuring that no trees are cut during development. Furthermore, local cuisines, artefacts, and cultural heritage will be actively promoted to enrich the tourism experience and support local communities.

Eiman Shah, a special assistant on information to G-B's chief minister, and the G-B government's Spokesperson Faiz Ullah Faraq, claimed that the guest houses of PWD/C&WD and Forest Department, as well as the PTDC Motel, have been loss-making entities because they are primarily used by government officials and guests at subsidised rates. Even then, most of the time, these officials make no payment for using the guest house. Their maintenance and renovation have been a burden on the G-B government. 

By leasing out these tourism entities, the government hope to not only facilitate their renovation, development, and better maintenance of such facilities but also earn a good share of rent and profits. The officials explained that 35% of the income generated from this investment will go to the Gilgit-Baltistan government, in addition to a 20% annual rent from the properties. They also mentioned the creation of a tourism management fund where 20% of the company's total profits will be allocated. This fund will be managed by a Joint Management Board comprising three representatives, each from the government and the institution, to promote tourism in the region.

Faraq explained that these arrangements were made under the SIFC, involving federal and provincial government and the Board of Investment, aimed at bringing prosperity to the area. He assured that the military's role would be limited to "providing the necessary support to build confidence". He emphasised that the ownership of all guest houses will remain with the Gilgit-Baltistan government.

"Once these entities are functional and run successfully by private investors, the army would step back and let them run the business," a source claimed in response to a query apprehensive of the army's role in the tourism business. According to the source, private investors already operating in the tourism space in other parts of Pakistan would turn guest houses and motels into 4-star hotels, which the region sorely lacks.

Opposition to Green Tourism company in G-B

A civil society representative claimed that the initiative was hardly required when the tourism industry was already flourishing in the area, thanks mostly to private investment and the private sector's involvement. He said that instead of leasing out the entities to a third company from the centre, the G-B government should have offered the facilities to the local industry to run and contribute revenue to the government.

At a press conference in Islamabad recently, MWM Gilgit-Baltistan Head Agha Ali Rizvi and Leader of the Opposition in Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly Maisam Kazim expressed their concerns over the government's acquisition of tourist spots and public lands in Gilgit-Baltistan, calling it illegal and unconstitutional. Rizvi emphasised that Gilgit-Baltistan belongs to its people who are dedicated to protecting their lands.

Rizvi warned that residents are ready to protest unlawful land seizures and resist any conspiracies. He urged the community to stand up against coercion and manipulation, condemning the government's negligence in addressing public concerns, especially regarding guest houses. He insisted that decisions about the guest houses - which are state property - should be made transparently in assemblies, not secretly behind closed doors.

Regarding deforestation, Rizvi criticised the sale of forests to private investors for the construction of hotels, arguing that no forested areas should be leased to capitalists for at least 30 years. He stated that leasing these areas for decades is equivalent to selling off the region. 

"In Gilgit-Baltistan, an attempt is being made to seize tourist places, lands, and forests," Rizvi and Kazim said as they called for the public to resist the move, affirming that they would not allow the land to be 'occupied'.

If this issue is not resolved in accordance with the will of the natives, the potential for unrest in Gilgit-Baltistan will increase

While addressing a press conference in Gilgit, the Das Khareem Supreme Council of Astore and community leaders strongly opposed the agreement. They referred to a 1993 agreement made for designating the Deosai Plains as a national park, which involved the G-B Forest and Wildlife Departments and the residents of Das Khareem. The leaders warned that any violation of this agreement, such as leasing even an inch of the Deosai land to any organisation through a covert agreement, would result in the complete termination of the National Park agreement. They asserted that the Deosai plains belonged to Das Khareem, and no individual from Das Khareem would allow even an inch of land to be occupied by any entity.

During a press conference in Astore, political activist Abbas Mousavi and local jirga leaders warned against any attempts to claim the Rama property, emphasising its ownership by the people of Astore Eidgah, Chongrah, and Patipura.

In another news conference in Gilgit, Awami Action Committee Gilgit-Baltistan Chairman Ahsan Advocate, along with some nationalists, warned the government of Gilgit-Baltistan to reconsider its decision of handing over guest houses and other lands to Green Pakistan Limited without consulting the people of the region. They also pointed to an attempt to seize tourist places, lands, and forests in the region.

They cautioned the federal government, suggesting it should learn from the situation in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and consider the constitutional status of Gilgit-Baltistan. They warned that if the decision was not revised, strong public protests would erupt in all districts of Gilgit-Baltistan. They emphasised that they would not allow G-B's lands to be 'occupied' and warned that both provincial and federal governments would be responsible for any crisis in G-B similar to that in Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

Rest of Pakistan apathetic to Gilgit-Baltistan's concerns?

Mainstream political parties such as the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and others have yet to clearly express their party stances on the important issue. Recent protests regarding this issue were disheartening, as Islamabad police arrested students who were peacefully raising their concerned voices against it. If the issue is not resolved in accordance with the will of the natives, the potential for unrest in G-B will increase.

The potential unrest in Gilgit-Baltistan over the transfer of tourism sites highlights the complex interplay between regional autonomy, economic development, and local disenfranchisement. The government's decision to lease out tourism sites to Green Tourism Limited is apparently aimed at bolstering tourism and economic growth, yet it has sparked significant opposition from local leaders and the public. Concerns about resource exploitation and lack of consultation with the local populace underscore fears of marginalisation and loss of control over vital tourism resources.

The people of Gilgit-Baltistan are sceptical as to whether the process of transferring properties to the control of Green Tourism was fair and transparent or not

The people of G-B are anxious about the transfer of tourism sites; they are expressing their discontent and raising their concerns on social media, in group discussions, and through the scholars' pen, showing that there is some resentment among the masses pertaining to the handover of G-B's properties to Green Tourism. Their umbrage and worries seem justified as they have not been consulted, and a great number of tourism sites have been transferred to a private company without their consent. People are also sceptical about whether the transfer process has gone through a fair process or not.

Addressing these concerns requires a fair and transparent approach, an equitable distribution of benefits, and active engagement with local communities. Balancing development aspirations with the rights and sentiments of the indigenous people is crucial to ensuring stability and fostering sustainable, inclusive growth in Gilgit-Baltistan. Without these measures, the government risks escalating tensions that could undermine G-B's socio-economic potential and regional stability, mirroring the unrest seen very recently in Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

The author is a student and a resident of Gilgit-Baltistan.