AJK has immense tourism potential and if managed well, tourism can boost the state’s economy, provide incomes at private and local level, and generate local employment. The Neelum Valley, with its stunning landscapes and cool weather is an attractive destination for tourists. However, poor condition of access roads, limited facilities, and a population that depends on subsistence agriculture and has very limited resources to invest in tourism have prevented the realization of this potential.
Since 2004, HWF has worked in the Neelum Valley to build capacities in the local communities to improve their living conditions while looking after their primary assets, an environment that is relatively undisturbed, and natural resources including forests and rivers that are central to their subsistence and wellbeing. With support from PPAF, HWF helped the local communities organize village and community organizations and completed several projects in Union Councils of Sharda and Gurez using a participatory management approach. Interventions targeted basic needs of the community including drinking water supply, sanitation, electricity, soil conservation, and flood protection. Environmental management and wildlife protection were an integral part of the work of HWF, where the local communities supported the government in control of hunting of wildlife and illegal fishing. Notification of the eastern end of the Neelum Valley as Musk Deer National Park by the government with support from HWF in 2007 formalized this arrangement.
Transforming the subsistence agricultural economy into a value-added service-based economy based on sustainable tourism has been the long-term developmental objective of PPAF and HWF in the Upper Neelum Valley. The Neelum Valley Project is an important milestone in this direction.
The number of visitors to the Neelum valley started increasing following cessation of tension along the Line of Control in 2002. The earthquake of 2005 substantially damaged the infrastructure and roads, and it took some years for the visitors to return to the valley. The number of visitors has been increasing since, and now presents the following challenges:
Environmental Degradation: Growth of tourism in the valley has been high in the recent past triggering construction of poorly planned facilities resulting in environmental degradation with consequent loss of tourism potential in the area.
Poor Quality of Facilities and Services: Most guest houses in Neelum Valley are not of good quality and standard of services in terms of upkeep and hygiene are poor, which limits the market to low-end customers that have a low economic but high environmental footprint. It also means that guest houses cannot charge the high price that tourists might be ready to pay for good quality accommodation.
Lack of Supporting Services: Supporting services such as transportation, tour operators, and trained guides are limited in availability and quality.
The Project is designed to build the skills and capacity of local communities to independently provide quality facility and services to visitors using their social capital and existing infrastructure to best of their advantage. Project activities include:
This project is being implemented by HWF under overall supervision of Mr. Vaqar Zakaria, Director, and Dr Anis ur Rahman, CEO, of the Himalayan Wildlife Foundation.
Ms. Summara Raza, Tourism Consultant, supported by Sabeen Abbasi is providing technical guidance to HWF and local community for selection of rooms and campsites, setting up the facilities, and is managing programmes for training the community in provision of hospitality services.
Mr. Muhammad Arshad, supported by male and female social mobilizers and community resource persons, is responsible for implementation of the Project in the Neelum Valley inclusive of direct supervision of upgrading of rooms, establishment of campsites, continuing inspection and quality control, and follow up on suggestions and complaints of visitors.
Network of Village Organizations, Community Organizations, and Local Support Organizations in the Neelum Valley organized by HWF and the government of AJK.
Ms. Neelum Azmat, Program Manager PPAF, is responsible for coordination with HWF on project management and with Akhuwat on disbursement of interest free loans.
“PPAF is a leading institution focused on eliminating poverty in Pakistan. Established by the Government of Pakistan as an autonomous not-for-profit company, PPAF began its operations in 2000. It is working across 130 districts in the country with 130 partner organizations. PPAF is providing financial support and direction to the Program.”
“Akhuwat is world’s largest Islamic microfinance organization. Akhuwat aims to alleviate poverty by creating a bond of solidarity between the affluent and the marginalized, and extends help to the poverty-stricken by providing interest-free loans so they can start a business and become self-reliable”
“The Tourism and Archeology Department AJK is responsible for promotion of tourism in AJK, and is extending policy and administrative support to the program ”
“The Himalayan Wildlife Foundation, instituted in 1993, has played a pioneering role in the country in establishing national parks and sensitive areas to conserve nature for future generations, and to build capacities in local communities for tis sustainable management.”