Pakistan hopes untapped mountains could lure foreign skiers

It survived the dark days of Taliban rule, the destruction of its main hotel and a major flood.

Now, the little ski resort of Malam Jabba is facing a new challenge from the coronavirus pandemic, just as it had hoped to showcase its revamped facilities to the world.

The ski season was brought to an abrupt end last month, with the resort closing as the scale of the coronavirus crisis became evident and much of Pakistan went into lockdown.

“We hope it will be recovered in a couple of months,” said Syed Adnan, a spokesman for the now deserted Malam Jabba resort.

“Unluckily, it is not the first time here people have [faced challenges]. First, the Taliban, then a flood, and now the coronavirus that is destroying their lives.”

Until its closure last month, Malam Jabba had been boasting of its renaissance and a lofty goal of bringing international skiers to Pakistan.

“We want to be an international hub for people around the world,” Jalal Bacha, Malam Jabba’s chief technician, told AFP during a recent visit, shortly before the virus lockdown started.

Officials hope Malam Jabba can showcase the country’s stated goal of changing international perception of Pakistan from “terrorism to tourism destination” — a phrase Prime Minister Imran Khan’s political party has used.

With a tree lined piste, competitive skiiers swooshing through the snow and soaring peaks in the distance, it is hard to imagine Malam Jabba and the surrounding valley under the control of the Taliban from 2007-2009.

Nestled in the stunning vistas of the Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan close to the Afghan border, development at Malam Jabba began in the 1980s with help from the Austrian government, who paid for the chairlift.

By the early 2000s, the resort and associated businesses were employing hundreds of people.

That all stopped when the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan gained control.

The insurgents had grown as a force in the early years of America’s “War on Terror” that started in 2001 and saw militant groups coalesce in the Afghan-Pakistan border region.

In 2008, the TTP destroyed the resort’s hotel and dismantled the chairlift.

“They cut the pillars to sell the steel,” recalled Sayed Liaqat Ali, a 28-year-old driver who said his two aunts were murdered by the Taliban.

“They were coming home after the curfew so they shot them.”

More than a decade since the days of public executions and Sharia law, as well as a flood in 2010, businesses and authorities have rebuilt Malam Jabba from the ground up, including its hotel and the main chairlift.

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