KALAM, Pakistan — Pakistan’s Kalam may have been rid of Taliban rebels only days ago, but there are trout in the streams, the peaks are pristine and — God willing the locals say – tourists will soon return.
Nestled in the Swat valley, once the jewel of the country’s tourism industry and known as the Switzerland of Pakistan, Kalam is surrounded by pine forests, snow-topped peaks and mountain hideaways tucked away in cool ravines.
Hotels have names like Heaven Side and Diamond Hills, but the river-front promenades are empty. Men crowding the roads are not waiting for tourists, but truckloads of relief as food runs low.
A two-year Taliban insurgency in the northwest valley has ripped the region apart and with tourist arrivals plummeting across Pakistan, no one dares venture into the one-time mountain idyll.
“There are many natural beauties — mountains, rivers, waterfalls and lakes. We call it heaven. We have rainbow trout, there is fishing everywhere,” says Shah Roon, 48, who owns a tourist information centre in Kalam.
But it has been two and a half years since he last saw a foreign tourist.
“Now they are not coming. It is not the best time, there is fighting. Our businesses are finished… Before I was living well, but now I am poor,” he said.
Optimism abounds, however, among generals addressing journalists in the town 6,500 feet (1,980 metres) above sea level and in the shadow of a mountain, extolling their success over the Taliban.
In late April, government forces launched an offensive to “eliminate” the extremists in Swat and two neighbouring districts in the northwest.
Major General Sajjad Ghani, who heads the campaign in upper Swat, calls Kalam a Shangri-La and says the town was cleared of Taliban fighters a few days ago, although most simply fled into the mountains.
“It is difficult to give a precise timeline, but I see that during the next summer season this area will be fit for the return of tourists,” he said.
Roon says that most hoteliers have abandoned Kalam for safer areas, but would have to return to the 350 to 400 hotels scattered throughout the town and nearby valleys before the tourists come back.
John Koldowski, director of the strategic intelligence centre at the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), said tourist arrivals in Pakistan climbed steadily in the decade and a half leading up to 2006.
They dipped slightly after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States but rebounded and peaked at 898,000 foreign arrivals in 2006.
“We were really expecting, on the basis of what happened through ’04, ’05, ’06, that they might get over the million mark very soon,” he told AFP from Bangkok, where PATA is based.
Instead, Pakistan has become sucked into fighting Islamist radicals.
In July 2007, a bloody siege between security forces and gunmen holed up in a radical mosque in the capital Islamabad triggered a wave of bombings across the country, which have killed more than 1,900 people, and the Swat insurgency.
Potential holidaymakers are bombarded with headlines branding nuclear-armed Pakistan the most dangerous country in the world, where Al-Qaeda are allegedly plotting attacks on the West, along with stories of beheadings and kidnappings.
“There is no question that there is a negative influence, it is all over the media worldwide these days,” said PATA’s Koldowski.
Fewer than 400,000 foreign visitors came last year, Pakistan’s tourism minister has said. The World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2009 put Pakistan 113 out of 133 countries.
Koldowski is optimistic that Pakistan’s tourist industry will bounce back, but says a timeline is premature.
In December 2007, the military also claimed it had cleared militants from Swat and tourists could return within 12 months, but the violence dragged on.
In Swat’s main town Mingora, Major General Ijaz Awan thinks Pakistani tourists will be the first to come back.
“I think foreigners will take some time to pick up the courage and confidence to travel to this area… but as far as locals are concerned, I think next season should be full season,” he told AFP.
Then, if normalcy returns, he hopes more intrepid adventurers from overseas will trickle back to the tranquil lakes bursting with trout and the mountain slopes ripe for trekking.