“We are packed for Eid,” said Muhammad Asif Muneer, managing director of the budget-friendly Gwadar Tourist Hotel. The pandemic may have sucked the life out of Karachiites’ entertainment, but it provided a boom for Gwadar’s tourism where the city dwellers are flocking to escape the confines of their homes.
Estimating the weekly capacity of the motel strip across the scenic marine drive to be around 2,000, Mr Muneer guesses that Gwadar receives around 20,000-25,000 visitors a month during the peak season when all places to stay are accounted for. The well-heeled may opt for Pearl Continental Gwadar that has witnessed a 200 per cent increase in the number of guests in the last four to five months, according to its finance manager Waqar Baig.
Other than the lockdown, the photos of the Gwadar Stadium by the International Cricket Council have also drummed up interest and made it a popular tourist spot, right up there with the Princess of Hope and the Sphinx.
A family of four travelling by car from Karachi to Gwadar for a four-day, three-night stay could comfortably cover their expenses in about Rs50,000-55,000. This includes two-way fuel costs of around Rs14,000-16,000. Except for a PSO pump in Gwadar, all the fuel stations along the way sell Iranian oil. Last month, the price of Iranian fuel was Rs100 per litre compared to the official price of Rs110 though rates fluctuate daily. The drive itself is beautiful with rugged terrains and a vista of the blue-green sea that brings peace to eyes weary with the polluted urban setting.
The middle-income group can find family-friendly hotels for around Rs6,000 per night. While restaurants are scarce in Gwadar, the food available at hotels is pleasant. But families with kids be warned, French fries are a delicacy not easily found.
The stunning beauty of the Makran Coastal Highway with its majestic topography and the glittering blue sea is wasted in Pakistan
While Karachiites may make up the bulk of Gwadar tourists, there is also a lot of interest from Punjab, say event organisers Zahra Tuba and Syed Osama bin Shehzad from Travel Tucker. Though Punjab has easy access to the beauty of the mountains, it lacks beaches, making the Makran coastline an attractive destination.
However, the stunning beauty of the Makran Coastal Highway with its majestic topography and the glittering blue sea is wasted in Pakistan.
“There are not enough visitors for me to purchase milk for tea,” says the chai wala at Sunset Park, near PC Gwadar. A green park with slides and swings for children overlooking a cliff with crashing waves, it is an ideal spot for families but fairly deserted. Similarly, the marine drive in front of the tourist strip is beautiful and well-lit at night but sparsely populated.
Considered one of the best places in the world for hot air ballooning, the unique formations of Cappadocia, Turkey, attracted 3.7 million visitors in 2019, according to media reports. While Pakistan is similarly blessed with rock formations dating back hundreds of years that would make for an incredibly beautiful spot for hot air balloon enthusiasts and other adventurers, its visitors barely number in thousands.
One cannot lament enough the lack of infrastructure. The basics of any long drive such as reliable petrol stations, rest stops with washrooms and the internet are all missing. Only Iranian petrol is available, many a time poured in with a can covered with a cloth as a strain.
If travellers hope to sing along to music while driving, they must download songs because the internet is practically non-existent from Karachi onwards.
Washrooms in particular are a challenge. We can arrange for everything, laments Ms Tuba, but the lack of restrooms is an impediment to travel for many beautiful places such as Moola Chotok in Sindh. Even if the private sector could come together and develop rest spots, travel would receive a boost, she suggests.
The highway from Karachi to Gwadar is beautiful but the road is narrow with a single lane for two-way traffic. It requires a lot of concentration to avoid high-speed incoming traffic from the opposite direction, especially at night when there are no lights.
Though the interest in Gwadar and its surrounding beaches has generated traction, it may be short-lived due to the lack of amenities. Without internet access, restaurants and activities, there is not much to do beyond a day or two. A bit of effort from the government and the private sector could make Balochistan a tourist hotspot of the south. But if the province is as ignored in tourism as it is in other sectors, this potential too would be wasted.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, April 19th, 2021