Kashmir: Centre may face AJK-like ‘public uproar’ brewing in GB

Jammu & Kashmir POK - Pakistan Occupied Kashmir

ISLAMABAD: Though the federal government “somehow managed” to pacify the public uproar and violent protests in Azad Jammu Kashmir with acceptance of demands, a similar resentment is feared in Gilgit-Baltistan against the handing over of around 44 tourism sites to new company Green Tourism Limited, considered to be a military entity and established under the guidance of Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC).

Soon after surfacing the list of tourism sites, including guest houses and motels being leased out to the company following an agreement signed with the GB government, the social media flooded with strong criticism and opposition to the initiative which according to the locals would deprive them of tourism industry, which has become a lifeline for the past few years.

Meanwhile, leaders of Majlis-e-Wahdatul Muslimeen, a religio-political party and some other political and civil society representatives, have announced strong opposition to the initiative.

Though the government, through its spokespersons, has tried to convince the people that the move will facilitate local and foreign investment in tourism industry, it seems that they are not being able to convince the public, which fear the permanent handing over of the important sites to the private firm or army.

The initially leased out 44 tourism sites in Gilgit-Baltistan, include seven Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) guest houses, 20 PWD motels, and 17 Forest Department sites, which have now been leased out to the company for 30 years.

When contacted an official source in the company, claimed that despite having immense potential, Pakistan lacks a robust tourism ecosystem, which could generate up to $30 billion by 2030.

Currently, the government-operated tourism resorts are in a shambles, with assets worth over Rs10 billion remaining non-operational since 2019. The annual liabilities for pay and allowances alone amount to Rs1 billion, highlighting the inefficiencies in the current system.

In light of these issues, the SIFC has urged the government to establish a new entity, Green Tourism Limited, which would be fully government-owned and tasked with the development of tourism in Pakistan. The objective is to transform Pakistan into a tourism-friendly destination with adequate service infrastructure in the short-term while fostering a sustainable tourism ecosystem in the medium to long-term. This initiative follows an inclusive approach involving all provinces as partners through government-to-government (G2G) agreements.

To facilitate this development, 120 tourism sites across various federating units—including Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, WAPDA, and PTDC—have been leased out to the new company. The G2G agreements have already been signed for 75 of these sites, including 44 in Gilgit-Baltistan (comprising 7 PTDC, 20 PWD, and 17 Forest Department sites).

In the first phase, 20 sites have been shortlisted for development, including 5 in Gilgit-Baltistan and an investment amounting Rs3 billion has been earmarked for GB in the initial phase. Additionally, 20% of the net profit generated from these developments will be reinvested exclusively for tourism development in GB. As a partner in this venture, the GB Government will receive 35% of the remaining profits.

The project will prioritize local human resources, aiming to create 300 direct and approximately 3,000-4,000 indirect jobs in GB. To harness and promote GB’s vast tourism potential, comprehensive global marketing strategies will be implemented. All projects will adhere to environmental sustainability principles, ensuring 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.

An insider in the GB government, when contacted, claimed that the guest house of PTDC, PWD and others have been loss making entities as they are used by government officials and guests on subsidized rates, without payment most of the time.

Their maintenance and renovation have also been a burden on government and institutions. By leasing out these tourist entities, the government would facilitate not only renovation, development, and better maintenance of such facilities but also earn a good share in the heads of rent and profits.

“When we advertised for privatization of such motels and houses, local did not show interest previously. Now they are claiming to offer more rents and returns,” said the insider, adding that the government lacked technical and financial needs to run these facilities.

“Once these entities are functional and run successfully by the private investors, the army would step back and let they run the business,” the sources claimed while replying to a query regarding apprehension of army’s role in the tourism business.

According to him, private investors, who are already in the tourism business in the rest of the country, would turn the guest houses and motels into 4-star hotels, the facilities still lacked by GB.

However, a civil society representative claimed that the initiative was needed at a time when the tourism industry was already flourishing in the area with mostly private investment and private sector’s involvement.

He said instead of leasing out the entities to a third company from the center, the GB government should have offered the facilities to the local industry to run and contribute revenue with the government.

As per the copy of agreement, the Secretary Tourism Gilgit BaltIstan Rana Muhammad Saleem Afzal had signed the agreement on the part of GB government while Arsalan Ahmed Malik had signed on the part of Green Tourism company as second party on April 23, 2024.

As per documents, a search on the Securities and Exchange Commission’s official website shows that the Green Tourism was registered at the Company Registration Office in Islamabad on Jan 26, 2024.

Meanwhile in a statement issued on Wednesday, head of MWM Gilgit Baltistan Agha Ali Rizvi, has expressed concerns over the acquisition of tourist spots and public lands in Gilgit-Baltistan by the government, which he termed unlawful and unconstitutional. In a detailed statement, Rizvi highlighted the plight of the region, emphasizing that Gilgit-Baltistan does not belong to any individual or authority; it belongs to its people, who are fiercely dedicated to safeguarding their lands.

Rizvi reiterated that the residents are prepared to protest any attempts to seize their lands unlawfully and will not succumb to any conspiracies. He warned against turning a blind eye to the oppression and schemes targeting public tourist destinations, urging the community to stand firm against coercion and manipulation.

Furthermore, he condemned the government’s negligence regarding public concerns, particularly in handling issues related to guest houses. Rizvi called for decisions regarding guest houses to be made transparently in assemblies rather than behind closed doors, emphasizing that decisions made in dark rooms under the cover of night are unacceptable to the populace.

Addressing the issue of deforestation, Rizvi denounced the practice of selling forests to private investors for hotel constructions, emphasizing that no forested areas should be leased to capitalists for thirty years. He warned against any decision that compromised the region’s natural assets, stating that leasing such places for decades is equivalent to selling off the region itself.

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 during the designation of 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 organization 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.

However, the mainstream political parties like PML-N, PPP, PTI, and others are yet to give their clear party stances on the important issue.__Pakistan Today