The first five-star hotel in the world at 10,000 feet, complete with a soon-to-be-completed infinity pool is in Hunza, claims its 35-year old owner Ejaz Ahmed Khan of Hard Rock Hunza Resort & Villas.
An expensive treat for those who can afford it, the room rate range from Rs25,000 to 45,000 per night with the presidential suite boasting a Jacuzzi that overlooks white-topped mountain ranges.
A hefty Rs150 million has gone into its construction, not a penny of which has come from banks who refused to finance it, explains its Thailand-based owner who has plans to expand to Karimabad, Skardu, Attabad and Gilgit. Hard Rock is one of the luxury hotels mushrooming up north along with other known names such as Luxus Hunza Hotel and Eagle’s Nest Hotel.
A happy coincidence of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the Attabad Lake disaster, the mountainous valley has cashed in on closed international borders this summer.
“Before 1979, there were no hotels; foreign tourists on the hippie trails used to come stay in the Amir’s palace,” recalls hotelier Liaquat Hussain. His family had one of the first own hotels, Old Hunza Inn, in the region which they have been operating for over four decades.
“I still remember 9/11. Our hotel was full, the entire valley was full. By 13/11 they were all gone, nothing was left of foreign tourists,” he explains. “I can surely say, if the trend could have been maintained, Hunza and Dubai could have been competitors in terms of social stature for tourists”.
While the amenities around the lake are owned by IDPs, the hotels are owned by investors from Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, says locals
There was almost no business for 15 years, pushing Mr Hussain to turn to other avenues. Then about five years ago domestic tourism resumed when the Attabad lake disaster brought the region into the mainstream media’s eye. The Chinese-developed roads made access to the region easier as well.
“I was earning about $1,000-1,500 in China as an English teacher a month. I returned in 2018 to rejoin the family business and now I am earning $10,000-$15,000 a month,” he says talking about his 18-room hotel.
About 95 per cent of the people in Hunza belong to the Ismaili community. Its spiritual leader, Prince Karim Agha Khan has worked a lot on education and health in Hunza and invests through the Agha Khan network, adds Mr Hussain, saying that the more liberal atmosphere of the valley is conducive to tourism.
“We take in about Rs2-2.2m per day,” boasts Ibrahim, a hatted bearded smiling man that appears to be in charge of speed boat finances at Attabad Lake. He explains that there are about 100-150 speed boats which cost Rs5,000 each for roughly a 15-minute ride. This comes to about two to four rides per boat.
Tourists can also jet ski for Rs1,000 per 5-7 minute ride. The local, Taxila-made jet skis cost about Rs400,000-600,000 and the imported ones cost twice as much. “But the imported ones are expensive because of the 300pc luxury tax we have to pay,” laments Noman, the man in charge of handing out life jackets on the makeshift tier that leads to the jet skis.
Jameel is a young man that sits collecting Rs30 from the ladies and Rs50 from the gents to use the washrooms. He collects Rs7,000-8,000 per day from tourists using the loo during peak season and gets a cut of about Rs20,000-25,000.
All the amenities of food and activities belong to the internally displaced people (IDP) after the 2010 earthquake that created the lake. However, the hotels that have sprung around the lake belong to investors from Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. Ibrahim surmises that it is likely that the pockets of the locals do not run deep enough to afford to set up a hotel and therefore the IDPs have limited themselves to the amenities around the lake.
About a hundred tourists can be seen milling around Hussaini bridge on a hot Thursday afternoon in July. The locals are slightly perturbed how their thoroughfare of a makeshift bridge of wooden planks across the river has become a hotbed for tourists.
‘It is strange that a country that wants to promote tourism is refusing visas to Brazilian and American nationals’
A local, Javed Miandad, (born in the 90s, he says a lot of his brethren are named after the Cricket World Cup stars) hands out life jackets and maintains order explaining that as many as a thousand people visit during July and August.
“In the 1960s, a bridge was made by the elders for the villagers to access their fields. The Attabad lake disaster swept the bridge away and a new one had to be built with the help of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme,” narrates Massudullah, a friendly local.
While tourists squeak in terror and gingerly step on one set-apart plank at a time, holding tightly on to the swaying support, he walks across as if he was strolling on a park.
Dodging groups that gingerly balance themselves for selfies, he explains that this bridge was not made for tourists though their presence has increased maintenance costs. During harvest, they carry sacks weighing 10-15kgs on their backs filled with wheat and potatoes. In the past, due to local politics and external pressure, they had not asked the government for help. A fee of Rs100 per tourist is charged to help maintain the bridge and beautify the surroundings.
“We have petitioned the government for a reinforced concrete bridge for ours and a nearby village,” he adds.
“The local security apparatus helps us discreetly,” says Wajahat Saleem, co-founder of a tour management company Voyage planner that is determined to bring international tourism to Pakistan. “Once, we were taking foreigners to place which had a lot of beggars which disturbs visitors so they had them removed for the duration of the visit.”
Recounting challenges he mentions that foreigners often get refused visas which results in a lot of appeals and paperwork. “It is strange that a country that wants to promote tourism is refusing visas to Brazilian and American nationals,” he says.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, July 19th, 2021