Gilgit: Standing in the balcony of his house, Wazir Shah looks out at the speeding, uninterrupted flow of traffic on the newly constructed highway connecting Pakistan with China.
The highway, known as Karakoram Highway or KKH, is part of the fabled Silk Road – an ancient trade route that connected the East and the West, from Central Asia, India, Iran and China, all way to the Mediterranean Sea, a great network of roads bustling with trade and cultural exchange. Gleaming in the afternoon sun, one may be forgiven to surrender to visions of this once mythical road, wildly alive with its endless caravans of merchants and monks, carrying silk, spices and syncretic philosophies to and from a fabled Xanadu in remote past.
These visions of trade and travel, and the promise of prosperity it brings, have come into sharp focus again with the prospect of the $46 b Pak-China Economic Corridor (CPEC). Like some futuristic, 2.0 version of Silk Road, the CPEC and its network of roads, railways and pipelines will boost trade and bring tourists to the scenic Gilgit – Baltistan. Or so hopes Shah. But is he and the hotel franchise he works for ready for that 21st century Silk Road reboot when it comes? Does Shah, and other employees of the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation Motel in Gilgit, see themselves ready for a glittering vision that has the country, its industrial and ruling elite, in a whirl of excitement lately?
He does not think so. “This organization has been at the mercy of rulers, who misused it time and again,” says Shah, whose real name is withheld for reasons of his job security.
Shah, a resident of Gilgit, has been associated for the past 15 years with Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation [PTDC] that operates 35 hotels and motels and 4 restaurants across Pakistan, many in remote but prime tourist locations. In Gilgit – Baltistan alone, it runs 10 motels with 60 permanent employees.
Once a flagship of the country’s tourism programme, the PTDC hotels have gone to seed, its once quaint but comfortable lodgings declining by way of prestige and preservation over the years for various reasons. But leading among them, says Shah, has been the increasing political interference in how the franchise should be run and managed and the conflict that has raged in the region for the last 15 years.
“The previous tenure of Pakistan People’s Party was the worst,” says Shah. “It simply ruined the organization’s reputation and structure. The facilities remained shut most of the time during the PPP rule because the staff wasn’t paid. Excessive hiring was done by the former Managing Director Mr. Khetran to accommodate his people. The law and order situation also contributed to its downfall.”
Shah says overstaffing drained the financial resources of the corporation that failed to pay salaries for months. The staff inducted on political ground, without any regard to merit, contributed to the decline of PTDC resorts that were once coveted by tourists all over the country.
According to media reports, the former MD Shahjahan Khetran was arrested in April 2015 for illegal recruitment of over 700 employees and misuse of powers.
The poor performance and growing deficit has made authorities inclined to privatizing the corporation. However, given the experience with privatization of PTDC motels in the past, this option looks untenable. In 1998 three main hotels, including Faletti’s in Lahore, Deans in Peshawar and Cecil in Murree were privatized. PTDC had shares in all four hotels.
“Things are complicated but I know the decision of privatizing PTDC has been put off once and for all,” said Shah, who has close links with top management due to his long association with the corporation.
Shah and other employees who are now paid regularly say though there was no proper system of record keeping, the facilities in Gilgit – Baltistan did well as all motels were full of tourists this year which also helped solve the salary issue.
However, the future of PTDC and its motels still looks uncertain. With the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, all motels in provinces are supposed to go to provincial governments but the centre wants to retain its control over PTDC. It has resulted in squabbling between the two over the motels.
According to A senior staffer of PTDC based in Rawalpindi, the centre has been at odds with the provinces, especially Khyber- Pakhtunkhwa, to control the properties located in the provinces. “This tug of war continues and nobody knows where it will end,” said the official requesting anonymity. “However the federal government is in no mood to let go. This stance has been communicated to the concerned quarters.”
Back in Gilgit, there are staffers who say the motels can regain their popularity if handed over to the province. “I suggest PTDC motels should be given to the province,” says Imran Ullah Baig, an assistant tourism officer. Baig has been with PTDC for over a decade and has served at different tourists resorts.
Baig suggests there should be an umbrella organization like the Gilgit Tourism Development Authority to deal with all matters relating to tourism. “The government sponsored transport service called NATCO should also be placed under the authority to facilitate tourists in the season.”
Baig says professional and experienced directors should be hired to look after the affairs separately for NATCO and PTDC and devise a mechanism to pool resources in time of need.
“Currently we don’t have an accurate system of record keeping because when we rent out a room, we make record of a single person heading the group or family,” says Baig. “PTDC has trained staff and prime property in the mountainous region. The only thing needed is to capitalize on the resources we already have. A dedicated team and political will can change the fate of the corporation.”