Skardu, Pakistan: “The international tourism in Gilgit Baltistan has increased beyond expectation due to direct flights from gulf countries, particularly from UAE and credit goes to our Diplomatic Corps of the region”.
This was stated by Iqbal Balti, who is known as the father of sustainable and environmentally friendly tourism in the area. He had been in the field for over half a century started his career as a tourist guide and had been fighting against all odds to keep the region clean and discourage mass tourism.
Skardu International Airport (IATA: KDU, ICAO: OPSD) is an international airport in Skardu, in the Pakistani territory of Gilgit-Baltistan. It also serves as a forward operating base of the Pakistan Air Force. Skardu Airport was designated and re-inaugurated as an international airport after providing upgrades to the airport to become a tourism hub for Gilgit-Baltistan. It has two asphalt runways, both 11,944 ft (3,641 m) long, while a third 8,740 ft (2,664 m) long asphalt runway.
In an exclusive interview with Dispatch News Desk (DND) News Agency, Iqbal was of the view that direct flights to Skardu Airport had changed the dynamics of tourism in G&B and Sarfaranga jeep rally has become a brand within years. He believed that G&B offers all three S—Sea (huge Indus river), Sand (one of the coldest deserts on earth and Snow.
Iqbal Balti owner of Baltistan Tours Pakistan from the extreme north —of Khaplu Valley in 1983 started his career as a tourist guide. People like Iqbal Balti have given their lives to the tourism industry in Pakistan although there is less tourism left in Pakistan after the 9/11 disaster. Iqbal is a politician, philanthropist, tour guide, owner of a hotel, and a tour company. Iqbal never stops even though treks are harsh, uphill, and difficult. Therefore, despite numerous problems being faced by the tourism industry, Iqbal is striving to help the tourism industry in his area. He spent his energies on promoting the domestic market when foreign tourists started avoiding visiting Pakistan in the past.
Iqbal Balti is “Life Time Chairman” of the Baltistan Association of Adventure Tours Operators. Pakistan and President of TMDS from 2004 to now.
The virgin Khaplu Valley has always been his first romance and he placed this valley as a popular tourist destination among domestic tourists in the last decade.
Conversation with Iqbal Balti is hereunder:
Question: What are you offering to promote the domestic tourism market in this season?
Answer: I invite people to come and view all the high peaks of Karakoram including 8000 m peaks K2, Broad Peak, G-I, and G-II, and visit Balti culture and Archaeological center Khaplu Baltistan, where they can see the old settlements of Balti culture, Khaplu palace (UNESCO awarded) and Masjed of Chaqchen (Buddhist temple converted to Masjed in 15th century), Astana Mir Muhammad (UNESCO awarded) and many others.
Q: What is special about Ghangche Lake?
Ghangche Lake is a water resource of Khaplu town and the high pastures of the area. It was the ibex hunting area of Yabgo density of Khaplu in old Baltistan. We are introducing Ghangche Lake Trek for Adventure lovers. This place is very interesting for researchers, archaeologists, homeopathic doctors, agriculturalists, land scalpers, biologists, geologists, natural photographers, and culture Lovers.
Q: What service do you offer to nature lovers through your company?
A: Baltistan Tours offers a wide range of programs to suit all tastes and pockets including Treks, Trekking Peaks, Mountaineering Expeditions, Mountain Biking, Rafting, Hunting, Jeep Safaris, Culture tours, and Archaeological Tours and Holiday packages for students, old citizens and families, in Pakistan and provide assistance to arrange similar programs in China and the Central Asian States. Baltistan Tours Pakistan has the honour of being the first and senior Tour Operator of the region in culture and adventure travel having its base in Skardu, Northern Areas Pakistan, and the gateway to the Throne Room of Mountain gods. BT offers a wide range of programs to suit all tastes and pockets including Treks, Trekking Peaks, Mountaineering Expeditions, Mountain Biking, Rafting, Hunting, Jeep Safaris, Culture tours and Archaeological Tours, and Holiday packages for students, old citizens, and families, in Pakistan and provide assistance to arrange similar programs in China and the Central Asian States.
Q: Iqbal you are also running Balti Yul mountaineering school. What is it? Tell us about this school
A: I am proud to have initiated the capacity building of Alpine Guides, High Altitude Porters, and Low Altitude Porters by establishing a mountaineering School “Balti Yul Mountaineering School” at Khaplu in collaboration with International Leadership Institute USA. Students joining the school are also given proper knowledge about First Aid, Emergency Rescue, Protection of the environment, and leadership.
Q: Anything you wish to share with our readers
A: I want to tell people around the world that Skardu and Khaplu valleys are very peaceful and there is no radicalism in this area and people of these areas need to visit foreigners and locals from other parts of Pakistan so poor people can survive. Otherwise, I fear anti-social elements can lure our youth into anti-social activities. Khaplu and the north of Pakistan need tourists to come and help them.
Q: What change in tourism dynamics of the region did you feel after direct flights started from Gulf countries to Skardu Airport?
I must appreciate our diplomats serving in Gulf countries who are promoting Pakistan as a destination and special thanks to the Ambassador of Pakistan in UAE (Faisal Niaz Tirmizi) because he has been promoting Pakistan among not only foreigners but also suggesting Pakistani families living in UAE to visit G&B with their children. Such diplomats are assets of the country.