As Pakistanis earn and travel more, it is time to see local tourism as a serious avenue for growth.
The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government has promised to give the nation four new tourist resorts in its first 100 days.
To help the Punjab government and its tourism department, I set out to explore three resorts across the province that are normally not on people’s radars.
Whether the provincial government takes this advice or not, my top three contenders for the prize are as follows.
Known more for Malik Amir Mohammad Khan, the Nawab of Kalabagh and fearsome governor of Punjab from 1960-1966, Kalabagh has so much more to offer.
River Indus, starting in Tibet, is contained in a mountain gorge; it is at Kalabagh that the river debouches into Punjab’s plains and what a magnificent sight it is to watch the sun go down over the 1928 railway bridge from the hamlet of Kukranwala on the river’s west bank.
You can take a boat ride upstream to Attock — previously Campbellpur — in a gorge only a few hundred metres wide at places, enjoy the views of old forts or centuries-old Hindu temples on both sides, make a stop at Makhad Sharif to visit the shrine on the banks of the Indus in the last town in Punjab or for a taste of the famous Makhadi halwa.
A one-way journey is two hours and the government can put Indus River Authority boats and infrastructure to good use.
Back in Kalabagh, visit and explore the historic 1918 Mari Indus railway station and its waiting rooms, along with a 1909 W&T Avery Ltd weighing bridge and a Neale’s token ball signal system.
The narrow-gauge train, which started from Kalabagh and went up to Bannu through Isakhel, stopped chugging in the 1990s. The stations at Kalabagh, Isakhel and Bannu are now derelict, but imagine reviving narrow-gauge, one of the only three besides Kohat-Thal and Zhob Valley railways.
Kalabagh boasts the second largest salt mines in Pakistan and used to be known for the dwindling art of making decoration pieces and lamps from salt rocks.
The icing on the cake is visiting the Kalabagh Fort and the legendary Bohr Bangla at the banks of the River Indus.
Both historic buildings belong to the Nawab of Kalabagh and his family and the relics, including guns, swords, medals and pictures remind us of a grand past.
The Nawab’s family still nurture some of the finest breeds at their stud farms, and their vast hunting ranges follow modern conservation practices.
The Kalabagh Fort and the Bohr Bangla have an immense potential to be converted into heritage hotels — imagine party boats or tourist yachts sailing on the Indus with Kalabagh in the backdrop.
Next on my list of resorts is Sakesar, the summer headquarters of the colonial districts of Mianwali, Jehlum and Attock.
Now, few people would know that Sakesar also gets snowfall in the winter and the valley boasts wildlife such as deer, foxes, partridges and leopards.
At the top of Sakesar is now a radar base of Pakistan Air Force and the government can request the air force authorities to make an allowance for civilians to enjoy the lovely mountains.
The top has some historic Hindu temples, including the Amb temples on the western side.
There is another government rest house a few kilometres from the top at Phulwari with astounding views of surrounding mountains and the reddish-blue Uchaali Lake.
Speaking of lakes, Soon Valley boasts many protected migratory birds’ wetlands including Uchaali, Kabehki, Jaahler and Namal Lakes.
While we have stopped welcoming tourists from the world over, no one can stop these guests from Siberia unless we destroy these natural habitats.
If the Air Force allows, one can visit these lakes, the 1860 police station in Nowshera, the game reserve and the historic forest rest house at Sodi Jai Wali, Dhun canyons, Dev Sharif’s emerald green ponds, the 1933 colonial Kanhatti Gardens near Kabehki Lake, the Nurshingh Phowar temples and enjoy the exquisite rolling mountains across Soon Valley.
My personal favourite is the 8th-century forbidden city of Tulaja. Few have dared to explore it yet.
Set on top of a mountain ridge on Khushab Sakesar road, Tulaja is an intriguing, mysterious and abandoned city which still needs to be documented in the archeology registers of Punjab and Pakistan.
The third suggestion is Fort Munro in the Sulaiman Mountains in Dera Ghazi Khan.
At around 6,500 feet, Fort Munro also has the distinction of being the only hill station in south Punjab to have snowfall every few years.
Fort Munro was developed by the British sometime in the late 19th century. Standing at the mountain ridge, it provides a panoramic view of the surrounding Sulaiman range.
In times gone by, the political assistant’s presence at Fort Munro would be announced by a fluttering Union Jack — and later the Pakistan flag — which would inform people in far-flung areas that sahib is at the fort, and they would arrive to get their issues resolved.
The historical flag post also signifies the place where all tribal chiefs stood in 1950 to announce allegiance to Pakistan.
A colonial billiard table is still functional in one of the buildings and the political assistant’s residence, Sandeman Lodge, reminds us of times when sahib would ride a horse or be carried in a palki from DG Khan all the way to Fort Munro.
Just beside Sandeman Lodge, there is a small Christian graveyard with some very humbling epitaphs, still preserved but needs to be protected.
There are some nice orchards at the base of Fort Munro and the man-made Damas Lake provides for both water and recreational facilities.
Fortunately there is a Fort Munro Development Authority at work and provision of some residential facilities and sports like paragliding, cable cars or boating can attract thousands of tourists.
Tourism as ethos
More than building individual resorts, I would also suggest converting the whole of Punjab into a tourist resort.
The government should develop a tourist map for each district that is available online. Just as an example, if I tell someone that Okara has a lot of tourism potential, I am sure to get a quizzical gaze.
Now Google Bhuman Shah, Depalpur Fort, Gogera, Ahmad Khan Kharal mausoleum, the banks of the River Ravi, Renala Khurd Hydropower Plant, Mitchell’s Farms, Naulakhi Kothi, Chaakar Khan mausoleum, and you would find heritage gems spread all across this otherwise rural farming district.
And imagine Attock with its colonial relics like Attock Khurd and Basal Junction railway stations, Khushalgarh railway bridge, Attock Fort, Makhad shrines, the beaches of blue water Haro and Soan Rivers, the game in the Kala Chitta Range, the Panja Sahib shrine and the Mirjal farms and hunting range.
We have over 300 canal rest houses and hundreds of forest rest houses spread all over Punjab.
Start with selecting a few such rest houses, such as Head Islam canal rest house near Vehari, 1922 Pathar Kothi on River Jhelum, 1928 Danoi forest rest house or the lovely 1913 Patriata forest rest house and lease them to some young entrepreneurs or established hoteliers.
Imagine the Hashwanis or Serena taking over these beautiful buildings and converting them into boutique hotels.
Give these enterprises generous tax and other incentives; once we get tourism going in these areas, the local economic activity would far outpace any parochial tax or other government revenue benefits.
The first basic requirement for Punjab as well as Pakistan is to have credible data on tourist inflows, resorts and heritage sites, and the official tourism departments should be restructured as facilitators of tourism.
While Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and northern Pakistan are endowed with mountains and high valleys, Punjab has comparative advantage in heritage, religious tourism and the landscape also varies from rolling mountains of Potohar to the deserts of the south with five rivers across.
Every district should have a tourism plan with points of interest identified along with provision of some basic infrastructure.
At least one government rest house should be identified in every tehsil to be outsourced to private entrepreneurs as public-private partnerships and available to be booked online.
Punjab has mainly two seasons and the government should focus on north Punjab in summer and south and central Punjab in winter.
With increasing disposable income, people are travelling and vacationing more and it is time to start focusing on tourism not as a luxury, but as a serious avenue for job creation and economic growth.
Omar is a development professional with a passion for travel and heritage. He also blogs at www.countryroads.pk and can be contacted at email@example.com.