Fida Hussain is a trekking guide and assistant manager at Pamir Inn Riverside Hotel in Chitral. His grey stubble and thinning hairline betray his age, yet his physical agility seems inexhaustible; his speed and strength leave a strong first impression and can put any youngster to shame.
Fida owns an open modified jeep which can comfortably seat at least seven people. Its rich blue color makes it iconic and familiar for the residents of Chitral. Fida purchased this vehicle two decades ago. It was part of his investment in a tour business he hoped to own in Chitral.
“I lived in a small village when I was a young boy. At the time, there were no roads or cars. Most people travelled by foot in groups. I remember groups of travelers passing through our village. They would stop at our little shop and my father supplied them food and water. At the time I used to wonder about the lives of these travelers…where they came from and where they were headed.”
“I finished my bachelors in commerce in 1991. By this time, Chitral was a major destination for international travelers. Soon after my graduation, I was approached by a friend who was managing a tour to the Shandur Polo Festival. Since I was a native of Chitral and its terrain was familiar for me, my friend wanted me to guide the foreign travelers.”
When Fida was renumerated by these travelers for his services, he began to think about a career in the tourism industry. “They paid me in dollars and when converted to rupees, it was a lot of money. So, I told my friend I wanted to start my own tourism company. He supported my idea but told me that it would not be so easy. I needed proper training and familiarity with routes frequented by travelers. I also needed an office and vehicles. There were many things I needed to do before I was ready.”
Fida then spent the next decade preparing to set up his own tourism business. He went through several training courses and then began taking tours across Chitral and beyond. He also learned to drive on various treacherous terrains. He began trekking and would assist professional climbers on their adventures.
The coronavirus pandemic struck yet another blow to the tourism industry in Chitral
As the world entered the 21st century, Fida finally felt ready to launch his own company. He had acquired all requisite certifications and trainings and had set up a small office. Besides financial inputs, he had also invested the best years of his life in realizing his dream.
He was preparing to receive a group of travelers arriving via British Airways in 2001 when the September 11 terrorist attacks took place in the United States. In the blink of an eye, the global environment changed. Fida’s tour group never arrived and suddenly, his colleagues began to lose all their tour groups. Foreign tourists were no longer coming to Chitral and all around him, people reliable streams of income were shrinking. Depression and despondency set in as he watched his dreams fail to materialize due to circumstances beyond his control. He closed his new business, sold his house in Rawalpindi and returned to his village.
Fida is one among countless people in Chitral whose fate and fortunes are tied to the valleys, not simply because of the remoteness of the area, but also due to a dearth of opportunities elsewhere. Tourism remains the main source of seasonal income in the district but now people like Fida rely on incomes from local tourists, as foreign tourists are rare these days.
It is no surprise that Chitral is an attraction for travelers, foreign and local. Its mountainous landscape offers a deep spiritual cleanse for those hoping to escape the bustle of big cities. The mighty Chitral River flows through the district, endless and constant. The sound of its powerful movement creates the perfect ambiance of nature in harmony. It is easy to lose track of time if one decides to sit on its banks and enjoy the view. The river beckons all kinds of people; those seeking refuge from their daily chores, or those hoping to have peaceful, uninterrupted conversations. It has a deep effect on heartbroken lovers and people who carry burdens the weight of which they cannot express.
The coronavirus pandemic struck yet another blow to the tourism industry in Chitral. In 2020, the district saw few tourists, though activity seemed to be picking up again this year. Vaccine hesitancy is high in the rest of the country, but Chitral has recorded the highest vaccination rate in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But even as the people of Chitral recover from the pandemic, they are now confronted with new challenges; the rapid military gains of the Taliban across the border in Afghanistan. As Pakistan prepares for another influx of Afghan refugees, high level visits are being made to Chitral to inspect potential sites for refugee camps. Fida and his colleagues worry about the impact of a deteriorating security situation on the struggling tourism industry of Chitral. They remember the post-9/11 decade as a dark period in their lives, and hope they never have to see such times again.
Meanwhile, Fida devotes his time working at the hotel and taking tours across the district. Every four days, he makes a 30-minute drive to his village to meet his wife and children. His blue vehicle is his most prized possession and trusted travel companion and he spends a lot of time keeping it in a good condition.
The writer is TFT News Editor and can be reached on Twitter @aimamk