Safety & Security Today (S&ST): Gilgit Baltistan has tremendous natural beauty and has immense tourist potential. How would you comment on this?
Mir Afzal: Gilgit Baltistan’s Tourism potential is massive and the region attracts well over a million visitors every year. The region has everything from peaks, glaciers, rivers to lush green valleys and scenic views.
S&ST: Law and order situation has improved greatly in recent years. What steps has GB administration taken to ensure the safety of tourists?
As I have mentioned earlier, Gilgit Baltistan attracts a large number of tourists every year. This year despite the coronavirus pandemic the region attracted thousands of local as well as foreign tourists. The influx of tourists was so high that most hotels in the region were filled to capacity. This is a testament to the fact that the region provides a very safe and secure environment to the tourist. The government is taking every step possible to ensure the security of tourists and has been very successful in achieving its goal.
S&ST: A major factor that contributes to tourism is good infrastructure. How do you view the current infrastructure in the region and the future needs?
Gilgit Baltistan’s Tourism department has recently identified around 22 sites to be developed as tourist destinations. Similarly, multiple areas have been identified on the Karakoram Highway to set up rest areas for travelers.
We also have the full support of the Federal Government, as Prime Minister Imran Khan has himself laid great emphasis on utilizing Pakistan’s tourism potential. We have ample funds and with the execution of the planned projects, tourism infrastructure in the area would be much improved.
S&ST: How has the Coronavirus affected tourism in the region?
Initially, Gilgit Baltistan’s tourism sector was severely hit by the pandemic, a trend that was witnessed across the globe. However, despite our limited resources, we tackled the situation extremely well. The general public, medical professionals, religious figures and the Armed Forces all played their part in curtailing the spread of the virus. Our response to the pandemic was also praised by officials of the World Health Organization who visited Gilgit Baltistan.
S&ST: It is very unfortunate that a large number of local tourists simply don’t realize their responsibilities when it comes to keeping tourist spots clean. Not respecting local norms is also an issue at times. What measures need to be taken to address this?
During a recent cabinet meeting, we have decided that the respective Deputy Commissioners will be responsible to ensure that tourist spots are kept clean. Elaborate arrangements have already been made in this regard.
S&ST: Climate change has emerged as a major threat to Pakistan. Due to its geographical location, Gilgit Baltistan is also prone to the effects of climate change. What is being done in this regard to mitigate the risk of climate change?
The mountainous geography and fragile environment of Gilgit Baltistan mean that the area faces a constant threat of unpredictable disasters like floods and landslides. In the past years, not much emphasis was laid on tackling the adverse effects of climate change. However, we realize the gravity of the threat of climate change and we are working on multiple projects to ensure that this threat could be minimized.
S&ST: Other than tourism, GB’s economy’s strength is the production of fruits and agriculture. We have all seen the beautiful viral images of Apricots being dried on the roofs of houses in the region. Do you think there is a need to modernize agricultural practices to increase yield and how do you view the potential of exports from this sector?
As you said, the region has immense agricultural potential. We have vast land available that is still uncultivated and can be utilized to increase our agriculture production even further. Also, with the increased availability of water and power due to the Diamer Bhasha Dam and other smaller projects, a lot of barren lands will be made cultivable. I am hopeful that in the coming years the region would not only be self-sufficient in agricultural produce, but will also have excess production.
S&ST: Gilgit Baltistan has a significant role when it comes to the development of China Pakistan Economic Corridor. In your view how beneficial will be the CPEC for the development and economic prosperity of GB?
The project is still in its infancy, but the positives have already started pouring in. Apart from generating employment, the project has massively increased trading activity in the region. This has given a huge boost to the local economy. This will only increase in the coming years as the project nears maturity.
S&ST: Earlier this year Prime Minister Imran Khan kickstarted the construction of Diamer-Bhasha Dam. The Dam when completed will be the biggest in Pakistan. Do you expect a surge in job opportunities for locals due to the project?
The Diamer-Bhasha Dam project has already generated thousands of job opportunities for the locals. During the initial phase of the project, huge swathes of land were acquired by the government and it indirectly injected billions of rupees into the local economy.
S&ST: Are the locals equipped with the necessary skillset and education to play an active part in both these projects? Are there any plans to modernize the education sector and establish institutes of higher education in the region?
A number of technical training institutes are being set up in Gilgit Baltistan. In fact, a few have already started providing technical training to the locals to enhance their skills. As far as higher education is concerned, we already have an institute of repute i.e. the Karakorum International University. The University offers various degree programs in diverse fields, be it engineering or medicine. A campus of National University of Modern Languages is also being set up here.
S&ST: The President has okayed holding general elections in GB on November 15th. There is already talk of transparency of these elections and this has been discussed at the highest level. What steps are being taken to ensure transparent polls and are the concerns regarding transparency justified?
The caretaker government has to facilitate free and fair conduct of elections under the umbrella of the Chief Election Commissioner. We are determined to hold a transparent, free and fair process and hand over power to the elected
*The interview was conducted for the October – December 2020 issue of Safety & Security Today.