According to a report by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), around 50% of families in Gilgit Baltistan (GB), directly or indirectly, depend on tourism and hospitality industry for their livelihood. Gilgit Baltistan has a rich tourism potential, as the towering mountains, lush green fields, pristine lakes, sprawling glaciers, architectural marvels, archeological monuments and the hospitability of the local people attract tourists from across the globe. According to the World Bank, Pakistan generated 765 million USD from the tourism industry in 2020, and much of it from the foreign tourists visiting Gilgit Baltistan. Gilgit Baltistan’s Minister of Sports and Tourism, Raja Nasir Ali Khan, said in 2021 that around seven lakh tourists visited Gilgit Baltistan, from June to August 2021.
Opening Ceremony of Baltistan Ice Hockey Championship, 2022
Despite these impressive numbers in the burgeoning tourism industry of Gilgit Baltistan, the potential of winter tourism in the region remains untapped. The inhabitants of the region are unaware of the potential of this industry, while the government is yet to start initiatives that would attract tourists to the region during the winter season. Although, winter tourism is a risky endeavor and only ambitious adventurers dare to challenge the climatic obstacles, it offers a unique opportunity to experience the raw and unspoiled beauty of nature in its purest form. Winter tourism involves winter festivals, skiing, snowboarding, winter trekking, rock climbing, mountaineering, ice hockey and ice climbing, amongst other activities. With the government’s support in facilitating these sports in difficult terrains and far-off mountainous areas, the full potential of winter sports in GB can be achieved.
Although, winter tourism in GB is in a nascent phase, there have been a few winter festivals and winter games in recent years. The Shyok Winter Festival, organized by the district administration with the support of the Canadian High Commission and AKRSP in Ghanche, Baltistan in 2018, was one of the earliest organized winter sports festivals. Ice skating and ice hockey competitions are annually held at Khalti Lake in Yasin Valley, Ghizer, Gojal and Ali Abad in Hunza district, which are gaining attention due to efficient social media advertising. Naltar Valley in Gilgit, has also been the hub of winter sports activities in GB over the years, including skiing, ice hockey, ice skating and paragliding. The National Ice Sports Championship was held in Naltar this January, where various winter games were played. These festivals are doing nothing substantial in promoting winter tourism in the region, as they are not being well advertised, and the infrastructure needs improvement.
Ice hockey is perhaps the most popular winter sport in GB, as it has been played in various lakes in Hunza, Ghizer and Skardu. The National Ice Hockey Championship as well as the Baltistan Ice Hockey Championship was held in Hunza and Skardu with the support of the Canadian High Commission in 2022, which is a positive step towards winter tourism in GB. All the districts in GB have natural playgrounds/venues for this sport throughout the winter season, and if the sports department in GB organizes an Ice Hockey competition between different districts of the province, the region has the potential to make it to the Olympics. This effort will nurture upcoming talent and give them the platform to showcase their skills. With the success of the game in GB, teams from the rest of the country can participate as well, which will further improve the standard of the game.
Naltar in Gilgit and Rattu in Astore are famous for skiing in GB, however, many new sites can still be explored for winter sports in this region. The Ski Federation of Pakistan, with the support of the Pakistan Navy, holds the National Skii Championship in Naltar Valley, located just 40 Km from the Gilgit City, where Ukraine, Turkey, Greece, Afghanistan, UK, Azerbaijan, Morrocco, Tajikistan, Iran and other countries have participated in the past. Various local teams, like the Pakistan Army, Civil Aviation Authority, GB Scouts, and Higher Education Commission have also participated in the competition. With proper outreach, funding and advertising, many new ski resorts can be developed across GB.
Trekking is usually reserved for summers, as it gives an opportunity to take in the beauty of valleys along the trek, but trekking in winter has its own charms. Famous treks in GB that are yet to get tourist attraction include the Gondogoro La Pass, Biafo Hisper Snow Lake Trek, Batura Glacier Trek, Rakaposhi Base Camp Trek, Shimshal Pass Trek amongst others. These treks are challenging for novices, but for seasoned trekkers they can be fun.
Winter mountaineering is more dangerous than in summer, because the days are short, the weather is severe, and the threat of avalanches is ever-present, but for mountaineering aficionados it is a risk worth taking. The mountains and hills in GB provide a good opportunity for all those seeking to scale snowcapped mountains and hills during winter. Winter mountaineering is a popular sport across Europe that attracts thousands of tourists from across the world: the Scottish Highlands, Aneto in Spain, Mont Blanc and Vignemale in France, and the Tatra Mountains in Poland and Slovakia, are the popular winter mountaineering destinations. The high-altitude mountains of GB provide a good opportunity for winter mountaineering, even climbing to the base camp of 7,000 meters mountains will be an expedition to remember.
Naltar has been the hub of skiing for the last decade and we have seen that it produced international-level athletes in recent years. Two of the residents of Naltar have participated in the Olympics in Giant Slalom Skiing so far. Muhammad Karim participated in the Sochi Winter Olympics 2014, while Muhammad Abbas played in the Winter Games 2021 in Vancouver, Canada. With proper grassroots-level investment in other winter sports in GB, Pakistan can hope to win Olympic medals in these games, as the region has both the talent and natural landscape.