Nearly two dozen breathing beings froze into motionless corpses — in what is more of a man-made tragedy than a natural calamity. The ill-fated tourists inched to their deaths while waiting whole daylong for help inside their snow-draped vehicles that were stranded on the hill station of Murree due to accumulating snow and traffic rush. The unprecedented crisis could have been averted if the authorities had even the slightest of the administrative sense and foresight.
The unusual nature of the deaths on the mountains of Murree and the dreadful suffering of thousands of tourists is an unforgettable story of awful administrative mismanagement, terrible lack of planning, and inexcusable absence of general facilities for tourists and locals. A huge influx of tourists amid a Met warning of heavy snowfall should have been enough to caution the authorities to be prepared for a coordinated response involving traffic managers, first aiders, rescuers, hoteliers and providers of essential utility services like electricity and gas. But while those supposed to stand alert were reportedly enjoying the weather capturing the whitening locales as backdrop of their selfies, those in more responsible roles of ministers were lost in praising the “success” of their government’s economic policies that made it possible for the public to take the road to the hillside in no less than “eighty thousand vehicles” — simply unaware of the disastrous outcome from such a glut of tourists influx.
The reaction from the officials, including the Prime Minister himself, was appalling, to say the least. While the PM expressed his shock at the tragedy, his words appeared to deflect the blame from the authorities concerned. “Shocked & upset at tragic deaths of tourists on road to Murree. Unprecedented snowfall & rush of ppl proceeding without checking weather conditions caught district admin unprepared. Have ordered inquiry & putting in place strong regulation to ensure prevention of such tragedies.”
The incumbent government has been shouting about the benefits of tourism as an economic saviour from the top of every hillstation in the country, but in all that time, it has failed to produce a comprehensive policy which prioritises humans and the environment. As a result, the current “policy” has only delivered a questionable mushrooming of expensive hotels in this region with no standardisation of service quality, care for environment, or empowerment of local infrastructure to deal with the increased rush of tourists, their needs, and particularly contingency for emergency situations.
Tourism magnets around Pakistan are succeeding because they create a balance between human needs and care for the environment. They take every step of the journey that the tourist would possibly take and make it entirely safe for them while placing an attractive proposition at the end. This incentivises the visit of tourists from even the furthest ends of the earth. We cannot even promise basic facilities for the survival of residents at our tourist hotspots.
It is about time we truly opened our eyes to the real calamity, our complete disregard for life in our national policies, attitudes and actions. Our response must be centred in human safety, environmental respect and sustainability. Or else, we will keep breaking-open car doors with dead tourists inside.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 9th, 2022.