Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) has started international flights to the Himalayan town of Skardu in Gilgit-Baltistan starting on 14th August when the first direct flight from Dubai landed at Skardu Airport.
Qayyum Naseer, who was on board the flight, said that he was ‘excited’ to be a part of the ‘historic flight’.
For Qayyum, who belongs to Skardu, the beautiful views of Skardu were nothing new, but according to him, ‘the views that he got to see from space, he had never seen them before.’
He says that when nature-loving foreign tourists come to Skardu by air, they will get to see a ‘new world’.
“When I found out that the flight from Dubai was going (directly) to Skardu, I was very happy,” he says. I had holidays during which I had to go to my area anyway.’
“I thought I would go to Islamabad, take a direct flight to Skardu. The ticket was also reasonable. Most of the Pakistanis were in the first flight.
He says that there were foreigners on the flight who had traveled to Gilgit-Baltistan before. When he came to know that there would be air travel to Skardu, he came here specially to see K-Too and Nanga Parbat from the air.’
With the landing of PK 324 where Skardu Airport has been given the status of an ‘international airport’, according to some, this could benefit the tourism sector in the area.
Skardu is the largest city of Baltistan division in the Gilgit-Baltistan administered area of ??Pakistan, which is considered the center of tourism and adventure sports in the region.
The beautiful tourist spots of Skardu include Deosai, the highest conservation park in the world, Shangri-La Lake, Sadpara Lake, Kachora Lake and Kat Panah Lake.
This region is also of special importance for adventure sports. Four of the world’s 14 highest peaks are located in Skardu, while many smaller peaks attract trekking enthusiasts that can be reached from Skardu city itself.
Skardu is situated at the confluence of the Indus and the Sugar River at an altitude of about 2500 meters (8202 feet).
The weather in Skardu is pleasant during most of the year and gets very cold from November to March. Heavy snowfall is seen here in winter, but the rest of the year there is very little rainfall.
The entire area of ??Gilgit-Baltistan is a paradise for tourists, but Skardu is a unique place in adventure sports and tourism. Every mountaineer in the world wishes to climb the summit of the second highest peak in the world located nearby.
According to Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation, nearly 2 million foreign tourists visited Pakistan in the year 2022 after Covid, of which more than 12 thousand went to Gilgit-Baltistan. It had a large number of adventure sports and tourism enthusiasts. In the same period, the number of domestic tourists in Gilgit-Baltistan was around one lakh.
A total of ninety groups came to Gilgit-Baltistan for adventure sports and tourism with 323 members and 899 local porters providing services to them.
Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation has not yet compiled the figures for this year, but apparently the number has increased. It can be estimated that during the current season, 150 climbers summited K2 in a single day.
Corporation Manager Tourist Facilitation Mukhtar Ali said that if access to areas like Skardu becomes easy and quick, the number of foreign tourists can increase manifold.
He says that some tourists have no interest in other cities of the country. Tourists who love mountains and nature come to Gilgit-Baltistan. When they get direct access to these areas, it will be very important for the tourism of our country.
Muhammad Umar, General Secretary of Pakistan Association of Tour Operations, says that flying from Dubai is a very good step. There is no doubt that this will boost tourism in Gilgit-Baltistan. The journey by road from Skardu to Gilgit is three hours. If tourists reach Skardu, from there they can go to any area of ??Gilgit-Baltistan.’
But according to Muhammad Umar, this flight will have to be operated on a regular basis. “Tour operators and international tourists will also be attracted to this flight once everyone is convinced that it is operating on a regular basis.” If it only lasts for one week in the season, then it might not have a significant impact.’
He said that with the help of these flights, foreign tourists will not have to deal with landslides and road problems at other places on the Karakoram Highway, including Chalas and Tatta Pani, which, apart from local flights from Islamabad, are usually accessible by road from Skardu or Reach Hunza.
According to Arif Aslam Khan, former chairman of Tourism Corporation and head of Shangla Resort Hotels, ‘these flights should have started ten years ago.’
He says that the country is suffering from economic difficulties and in such a situation, ‘foreign tourists are the easiest solution for us to earn dollars. Tourists want to come to Pakistan. They come to Pakistan and tell us that there is no more beautiful place but they get bored when their time is wasted due to roadblocks and other reasons.’
PIA spokesperson Abdullah Khan says that tourism will be boosted only when foreigners have easy access to Gilgit-Baltistan and Skardu.
Abdullah Khan says that PIA started flights from Lahore and Karachi to Skardu two years ago. ‘It used to be seven flights a week, now there are 19 flights a week. We expect flights from Dubai to continue and increase in number.
While PIA is being lauded for this ‘historic flight’, some people are not very optimistic that it will prove to be an effective tourism initiative.
Irshad Ghani has been associated with the marketing department of national airline PIA in the past. He said while talking to BBC that the business sense of this project is not made because there is no demand for this route.
He said that direct flights from Karachi to Skardu were also started in the past but they had to be stopped due to lack of passengers and resources.
According to him, this seems to be more of a political decision than a business one, which will increase the number of international airports in the country, but in the long run, many people may not be able to travel there.
But on the other hand, Mukhtar Ali says that Dubai is the major tourist center of the world where tourists from all over the world come. “Now the international tourists who want to visit Gilgit-Baltistan and Skardu will get a lot of convenience and the most important thing is that PIA is providing this facility at very reasonable fares.”
Arif Aslam Khan says that the start of PIA flights will have a good impact, but other foreign airlines will also be able to start flights to Skardu from different countries of the world.
He said that ‘some time ago I had a meeting with the president of Turkish Airlines. They said that we want to start Skardu flights. China has built a new international airport in its territory, 100 kilometers away from Skardu. In this way, tourism and communication with China will be very easy.
However, Arif Aslam says that lack of infrastructure is a major problem in Skardu. ‘Currently there are few hotels and accommodation for international tourists in Skardu.’
According to him, if three or four international flights arrive in Skardu at this time, there are no suitable hotels and arrangements for their accommodation.
He said that at present there is a lot of investment in Skardu. Good and big three and four star hotels are being built. We hope to have them ready in Skardu by next year.’