Pakistan’s once-posh ski resort awaits post-Taliban lift

Alex Rodriguez / Los Angeles Times

MALAM JABBA, Pakistan — Boys in tattered coats schuss down Malam Jabba’s powdery slope on homemade pine skis. Galoshes nailed to the planks suffice as ski boots. Bamboo sticks serve as poles.

A few hundred yards away, jobless men trudge to the top of a snowy ridge to scavenge scrap metal from the mounds of rubble at what was long the country’s only ski resort, a posh winter getaway that drew moneyed businessmen and European diplomats to this rugged northwestern region known as “the Switzerland of Pakistan.”

That changed five years ago, when the Taliban temporarily took control of the Swat Valley.

During its brutal reign in the shadow of the white-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains, the Islamist militant group beheaded those they saw as opponents, burned down schools and forbade girls to attend classes.

The militants, who regard skiing as un-Islamic, set fire to the resort’s 52-room hotel and destroyed its Austrian-built chairlift, snow-making machine and ski rental shops.

Although the government regained control of the valley in 2009, Malam Jabba remains virtually dormant, a symbol of Pakistan’s floundering attempts to bring tourism back to Swat’s velvet-green mountainsides and purling streams.

It didn’t help that the attempt to kill 15-year-old education activist Malala Yousafzai in October brought world attention to Swat and heightened fear of a return of Taliban violence to the valley.

“The government has been telling us for years that they’re going to rebuild the hotel, and it never happens,” said Sabz Ali, 18, trudging up the slope with his Japanese-made skis over his shoulder. His family owns a small hotel nearby called the Green View, which pulls in about $20 a month, on average, from a smattering of guests. “The (big) hotel is the main thing. If they build it, people will come.”

Pakistan is more than just a world of fundamentalist clerics and car bombers. The world’s second-highest peak, K2, beckons mountaineers to the Pakistan-China border region. In southern Sindh province, the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro opens a window onto the ancient Indus Valley civilization, with ruins that have survived for 4,600 years.

But the pinnacle of Pakistani tourism has been the 91-mile Swat Valley, about 140 miles northwest of the capital, Islamabad. Members of the Gandhara civilization dating to the third century B.C. left behind massive cliffside carvings of Buddha and stone shrines that still stand. Some of the country’s best trout fishing can be found in the meandering Swat River and its network of creeks and streams.

And then there’s Malam Jabba, Swat’s answer to Aspen.

In its heyday, the resort hosted thousands of people each day; now, the number is usually in the dozens.

The ruined hotel, built as a joint effort between the Austrian and Pakistani governments, welcomed visitors with a white modernist facade and sweeping concave roof, a departure from the boxy style typical of most Pakistani architecture. Inside, fireplaces, thick wood paneling and dark red carpeting gave the lobby a chalet feel. Skiers taking a break from the slopes could skate at the ice rink or browse through a souvenir shop devoted solely to jars of Swat-made honey.

“It was a beautiful, huge hotel, and it was always full,” Ali said. He and his family fled Swat during the military offensive and returned four months later to find the hotel destroyed. “When I saw it, my heart sank. It was so beautiful, but it also meant we had jobs.”

The military maintains bases and checkpoints to ensure the Taliban doesn’t return, and hopes to one day transfer all law enforcement responsibilities to the civilian government. Government officials and leaders in Swat say it’s vital to the local economy that tourism be resurrected.

“Swat is now totally cleared of the Taliban,” said Syed Aqil Shah, tourism minister for Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, where Swat is located. “What happened to Malala was just one incident that made people start talking again about Swat security.

“But I assure you that Swat is as safe as any other place in Pakistan right now.”

Nonetheless, tourism is a shadow of what it once was.

The Swat Valley region now attracts about 50,000 tourists annually, compared with 300,000 before the Taliban takeover, said Zahid Khan, president of the All-Swat Hotels Association. The drop-off seeps into the life of almost every resident, Khan said, because 80 percent of wages — whether of hotel workers, cooks, taxi drivers or handicraft artisans — depends on tourism.

Khan contends that provincial and federal officials have made the revival of tourism in Swat a low priority. His requests to meet with top officials are largely ignored, he said, along with pleas for financial assistance.

Making matters worse, the region was hit by the epic floods that washed over a swath of Pakistan in 2010. More than 120 hotels in Swat were damaged or destroyed, and only 20 have been rebuilt, with the owners paying for the work themselves.

“There is little or no political will to revive Swat tourism,” Khan said. “We’re still waiting for grants and low-interest loans to help hotel owners rebuild after the floods. But very little is being done.”

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