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Tourists Are Overrunning A Pakistani Region That's Too Friendly For Its Own Good


Residents of Pakistan's far northern highlands call tourists guests and often welcome them into their homes. Visitors bring prosperity and jobs. But after domestic tourists nearly outnumbered locals two summers in a row, hospitality and patience are wearing thin. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports.

DANNY PORTER: I'm Danny. I'm from North Yorkshire in England. I'm here to see this beautiful country, Pakistan.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Danny Porter has just climbed off a boat floating on a turquoise lake. It's nestled between the world's highest mountain ranges, the Karakoram, the Hindu Kush and the Himalayas. We're in an area that's all glaciers, rivers, orchards and mountains. And it's stunning - at least Porter thinks so.

PORTER: People here are just beyond friendly. It's just a beautiful, beautiful place. Far more people should come here.

HADID: This is the kind of testimony that Pakistan dreams of. The country's trying to attract foreign tourists who've largely shied away because of Pakistan's battered reputation after years of militant attacks. And some foreigners are coming, but the biggest group of visitors here are other Pakistanis from the plains below. And they've transformed life here.


HADID: A musician, Zia Ul Karim (ph), says they've helped revive Indigenous music. Melodies that were almost dying are now being played again.


ZIA UL KARIM: Many tourists demand to listen to our music here.

MUBARAKA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: They've brought prosperity. Just ask Mubaraka. She's from a village where kids run about in flip-flops in heavy-jacket weather.

MUBARAKA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: She says tourists are buying their produce. Their shops sell more goods. There's more jobs. But she points to a meadow where goats are grazing.

MUBARAKA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: She says tourists were camping there, and they left all their trash.


HADID: Every place we visit, we meet women who are cleaning up after Pakistani tourists, like in the nearby town of Karimabad. There, Farhana Baig holds a straw broom. She sweeps cobblestone streets.

FARHANA BAIG: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: She's annoyed that tourists think it's OK to dump stuff like bottles and dirty nappies. All around us, there are signs telling folks to put trash in the bin. More signs ban tourists from taking photos.


HADID: Aqeela Bano heads Ciqam, it's an aid group that manages a women-run restaurant, a hotel, a historic fort and a carpentry workshop. And that's where we meet. She understands tourism and appreciates the business. But she says...

AQEELA BANO: The problem is basically unfortunately, and I am sorry to say this, especially our Pakistani tourists. They have not right manners.

HADID: She says all those signs are posted because over the summer, men took photos of local women and children without their permission and shared them online.


HADID: Women here are quite different from the rest of Pakistan, which is really conservative. The highlands are dominated by fairly liberal Muslim sects, and women here don't necessarily cover their hair. And they work in public, like Lal Shehzadi (ph). She runs a tiny restaurant that serves local food, like apricot soup and lamb pies.

LAL SHEHZADI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: She says sometimes visiting Pakistani men heckle her.

SHEHZADI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: "They ask, is your husband dead? If your husband's alive, why does he let you work?" Shehzadi says lots of domestic tourists are pretty respectful, but that minority who aren't have really done damage. And what that suggests is that this area is struggling to adjust to so much tourism.


HADID: But at the furthest northern part of Pakistan, near the windy, icy border with China, you get the more sense that more tourists are coming.

You're all from Malaysia?

UNIDENTIFIED TOURISTS: Yeah. (Singing in non-English language).

HADID: There's a German tourist, Hannes Rieseberg. We chat through the icy wind.

HANNES RIESEBERG: It's cold, but I love it.

HADID: He says Pakistan has a bad reputation. But after visiting...

RIESEBERG: It's my duty to tell all of my friends and my family about how safe it is and how beautiful.

HADID: And he says he'll tell them to come.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Khunjerab Pass.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.