The Swat Valley may be not be a slice of heaven anymore but a public-private partnership can do wonders for its lost glory.
Swat Valley, also known as the Switzerland of South Asia, is tucked deep in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa ( KPK). The valley’s snow-capped mountains, clear rivers, delicate streams, mystical lakes and lush forests are currently the hotbed of terrorism.
Alexander the Great first captured the valley in 327 BC from the local inhabitants. Since then Swat has hosted various the Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, before finally falling under the protection of the British Empire. After partition of the sub-continent in 1947, the state acceded to Pakistan. kistan. The former princely state was conse- conse quently dissolved in 1955 when the Prince of Swat, Muhammad Aurangzeb Khan married the granddaughter of Field Marshal Ayub Khan. Lying to the north of the country, Swat today hosts a predominant ethnic composition of Afghans and Pushtuns (Pakhtoons).
The valley contributed greatly to Pakistan’s tourism industry from the late 60s to 2005. Since then its fate changed drastically and Swat became a victim to terrorism followed by a grand operation by the Pakistan Army and later suffered from severe floods. Having been destroyed by both mankind and nature, Swat today holds ruins of schools, hospitals and infrastructure as well as broken dreams and a deteriorating lifestyle. Adding to the misery is that even after two and a half years no encouraging development activity has taken place in the area.
Schools and the academic system in Swat had served as a model for educational and vocational institutes. Catering to a number of different educational systems, ranging from madrassahs to public schools, the area also housed missionary schools serving the students of Swat since the 18th century. Jehanzeb College, founded by Prince Aurangzeb in the late 60s, shows the valley’s interest and commitment towards education. Apart from a high literary understanding, the people of Swat exude a hospitable nature, thus making the area a prime tourist destination.
The Swat valley has drastically changed, making it almost unrecognizable for those who wish to return home. Most of the roads, beyond Mingora (the main town of Swat) or Saidu Sharif (the capital of Swat), have been wiped away by the floods. Beyond Mingora, lie exotic resorts and locations including towns of Madyan, Bahrain, Kalam, the Glacier, Mahudant Lake and the famous Malam Jabba, the ‘skiing resort.’ With missing infrastructure, much of this tourist spot has been lost.
The Swat Valley served as a premiere tourist spot for foreign visitors who would swarm the area. The roads were smooth till Kalam and the Mataltan Forests, continuing to the heavenly lake, Mahudan. Today, the roads have deteriorated and a 2 to 2.5 hours drive takes approximately 5 hours. Bad infrastructure coupled with a rising threat of radicalization and terrorism, deprives the world from visiting historic landmarks such as the White Palace - the King’s palace situated in the heart of the mountains, built especially for Queen Elizabeth’s visit.
Apart from losing tourism revenue, agricultural loss has also severely affected life in Swat. The valley is famous for the best quality of wheat and rice as well as fresh vegetables like tomatoes, radishes, cucumbers, onions and spinach. Fruits such as peaches, plums, apricots, strawberries, apples and walnuts are also a specialty and are exported to other parts of the country. Agricultural ventures always operate in a chain process; the profit of one production is consumed in the cultivation of another. However, severe floods have disturbed this practice, making the land uncultivable.
Life in Swat will not return to normal without the support of stakeholders in the region. The tourism industry primarily drives the eco-system in the valley. Without any adequate infrastructure, no tourism can take place.
In order to solve this problem, the basic but most urgent requirement is the re-building of roads. The road from Bahrain to Kalam is hardly 35 kilometers but needs major repairs. The road between Bahrain and Madian is hardly 3 kilometers but has not been restored after the floods. It is only when international tourism events take place, that the government takes note of the deteriorating and, in many cases, absent infrastructure. Some patches have been repaired, especially those on the way to Malam-Jabba, solely because of the skiing festival that was held there a few months back.
It is imperative that the government act immediately in order to save its dying tourism resources. Pakistan has unparalleled natural potential which remains to be tapped. Once the roads are constructed, tourism will be re-established and the ecosystem will be restored.
Local elders along with many NGOs are working hard to restore and reconstruct the valley but a lot more needs to be done. Without the key support of the public sector, the situation will remain challenging and difficult.
In times like these, it is imperative for Pakistan to display its soft image. The tourism industry can serve as a catalyst in changing the perception of people around the world. The more the global perception changes, the better for the image of Pakistan.