Published in Mar-Apr 2022
My name is Shams Uddin. Hale and hearty at 50, Alhamdulillah, I dwell in the mountains of the beautiful Chitral Valley, surrounded by lush green trees and the majestic Hindu Kush mountain ranges, where I run a small travel agency called Batuta Travels.
My day starts with a morning trek after Fajr prayers. My seven-kilometre trekking route, which has now become a regular feature of my life, spans across Chitral – from the Drosh and Kalash valleys to the Tirich Mir base camp and Torkhow, Broghil and Kumrat valleys. The birdsong combined with the pin-drop silence of early mornings is extraordinary.
As I trek, the landscape is fresh, especially when there has been an overnight drizzle, and the early morning colours have a kaleidoscopic effect under the sunshine. The light green patches of crops, grass, shrubs and trees interspersed with the blossoms of apricot, peach and apple trees, all come together to create a mesmerising scene. The green carpet of grass with tiny flowers is spellbinding and makes me stop on numerous occasions during the trek to gaze at it.
It is essential to be well- equipped for a trek, hence I wear sunglasses, good trekking shoes and carry a water bottle; these items ensure the trek is smooth and comfortable. Sometimes, I prefer to carry a book or two; reading interesting books in a picturesque landscape close to nature is a treat that triggers innovation and creativity.
Upon returning, I enjoy a wholesome breakfast of strong tea with shakhmozhi (vegetable bread), eggs and dairy products and then head to my office at 08:30 a.m. Being associated with the tourism sector since 2004 is one of my greatest pleasures as it provides me with the opportunity to interact with different people, learn about their lives and take them on an adventure.
Once in my office, my day usually starts with reaching out to clients, reconfirming their travel itineraries, updating social media posts, planning upcoming tours, booking air tickets, and arranging accommodation for the tour groups. I have a team of four expert tour guides well-versed in taking tour groups to Chitral and beyond. Sometimes, I also lead tours and treks; in fact, I am planning a tour to Skardu. At the office, I work in a paperless environment to save paper and in turn, trees. I never use printing for documentation. All official data is maintained in soft copy format.
An important aspect of my work is promoting green tourism, something still in its initial stages in Pakistan and practised primarily in northern Pakistan – Hunza or Gilgit – where polythene bags have been banned through legislation by the Gilgit-Baltistan assembly – a first in Pakistan.
However, green tourism doesn’t necessarily mean a vacation spent in the outdoors with little or no comfort. On the contrary, it can be a wonderful adventure. In Pakistan, there are a few ecotourism resorts that believe in using solar energy, harvesting rainwater and complying with the SOPs related to not using plastic. Another facet of green tourism is avoiding visiting certain pathways or ancient sites and causing undue pollution. Unfortunately, green tourism is still a new idea for conventional tour operators in Pakistan; they hardly know or accept the idea, but it is the future of sustainable tourism in Pakistan and must be encouraged. The green tours we offer incorporate a code of ethics for green trekking and a number of SOPs.
Before delving into the SOPs, let’s try to understand the concept. Green tourism is an eco-friendly way to vacation that protects the fragile ecology and natural biodiversity of various destinations – in my case, the Hindu Kush and the Himalayan regions in northern Pakistan. It starts with self-awareness and ends in the collective welfare of the natural environment. By practising green tourism, we ensure that the natural habitats of flora and fauna are not destroyed, and natural resources such as trees, clean air and spring water are not wasted or polluted.
During our green tours, we encourage our clients to go paperless and conduct their transactions digitally. For me, converting people to paperless documentation underpins green tourism and it is something we practise at my company to promote sustainable tourism. Furthermore, it enlightens my consciousness and gives me the confidence and pleasure of being a responsible and environmentally friendly professional.
During excursions, clients are prohibited from using polythene bags, plastic bottles, tin cans, biscuit wraps and other non-degradable waste. Instead, reusable paper and cotton bags are encouraged. Smoke emissions of any kind are strictly forbidden and bonfires and cooking in the open air are out of the question because they contribute to air pollution. Instead, clients are encouraged to eat tinned food, and if something has to be boiled or heated, they use portable stoves that use natural gas. Enjoying local cuisine served in handmade mud utensils is also an important facet as is protecting the flora and fauna in national parks, and hunting, picking fruit or flowers are not allowed. In Pakistan, one area of green tourism that is thriving is the focus on promoting the local culture and economy by supporting small cottage industries and buying souvenirs.
We regularly educate our clients to take care of the natural environment in the destinations we take them to. I have made it an official policy in my company to take care of water bodies such as rivers and streams, in addition to glaciers and meadows, whenever we take clients on a trip. No kind of pollution is allowed. I work with service providers (guides, hoteliers, porters, tour operators and transporters etc.) who firmly believe in environmentally-friendly initiatives.
My workday usually ends at 5 p.m. (of course, if I am on a trek my timings are much longer!) and I then head home to enjoy time with my family. I talk to my children about their studies and encourage them to adopt and promote time-honoured ethical values. Reading out short ethical stories is one of our favourite family pastimes.
We have dinner at about 8 p.m. This often comprises home-grown rice with curry and traditional dishes such as chirashapik (bread sliced with thick milk topped with melted butter) or charmborogh (traditional apricot juice).
As I retire to bed, I pray that more tour operators start green tourism; a green holiday that can be spent studying the local flora, fauna and cultural heritage of the area, as well as learning ways to protect and preserve it. Travellers should focus on trips that encourage them to take an active part in improving the local area by working to preserve natural habitats, helping to build a school, or performing services that benefit the area. These vacations can be a lot of work, but many people find them to be very rewarding and interesting learning experiences. I would like to end this piece with a poem I wrote which explains why I love my profession and surroundings:
Sloughing into flute a branch of willow, Rocking atop the rock looking below, Absorbed as if in the midst of pray, Tuneful melody a lonely flutist plays, Peaceful herds nearby grazing, To herald and welcome spring.
Shams Uddin is CEO, Batuta Travels.