PESHAWAR -- The recent ascent of Tirich Mir by two French alpinists has given Pakistan hope that its terrorism-ravaged tourism industry might rebound. The mountain is the highest one in the Hindu Kush range and overlooks Chitral, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).
Observers are crediting Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the army's on-going counter-terrorism offensive in North Waziristan since June 2014, with destroying terrorists' ability to scare away travellers and to deprive Pakistan of badly needed tourism revenue.
Tourism, including mountain climbing, has suffered in Pakistan since terrorism began surging in 2001. Foreign climbers especially shunned Pakistan after terrorists massacred 10 climbers and a guide at the Nanga Parbat base camp in Gilgit-Baltistan in 2013.
The first Tirich Mir ascent in 15 years
Before the French pair scaled 7,708m-high Tirich Mir in July, nobody had done so since an Italian in 2001.
The KP government planned the expedition but kept it secret for security reasons until the climbers had succeeded, Zara Alam, spokeswoman for KP Tourism Corporation, told Pakistan Forward.
"The Frenchmen's ability to conquer the summit without any mishaps and returning safely afterward corroborate our claims of the favourable law-and-order situation after Operation Zarb-e-Azb," she said. "[Their ascent] will attract more foreign climbers and expedition teams."
Since Operation Zarb-e-Azb's inception in June 2014, airports and hotels in KP have seen an increase of 60% in visitors, she said, calling the growth a good omen for the tourism industry.
KP authorities are working to revive tourism and recognise the need to change the province's image as a hotbed of terrorism, Zara added.
The French mountaineers "gave KP a beacon of hope", Zahoor Durrani of Peshawar, owner of Sehrai Travel, told Pakistan Forward.
Hoping for a return of tourism's heyday
If security remains strong, KP could see a return of the boom years of 1970-1978, when every year a charter plane full of foreign visitors would come for journeys to northern areas, he said.
In the grim recent years, climbers sought out other countries because they could not obtain insurance for trips to Pakistan, he said.
The evident ability of the French climbers to obtain insurance "shows the world's confidence in Pakistan's security situation after the obliteration of the militancy", Durrani said.
The nose-dive in tourism to Pakistan since 2001 directly stemmed from terrorism, KP alpine guide Syed Imran Schah told Pakistan forward. "[They] stopped planning expeditions here," he said.
Two more foreign climbers are "near the Tirich Mir summit now", he said. "I hope more teams will come."
The authorities could facilitate visitors by simplifying the issuance of clearance certificates, visas and visiting permits, Imran said.
Lately, foreigners have been able to travel without a No-Objection Certificate in areas where they formerly required a police escort, Chitral journalist and ARY News correspondent Gul Hammad Farooqi told Pakistan Forward.
The Nanga Parbat massacre in 2013 profoundly scarred Pakistan's image among climbers, he said.
"The situation changed completely after the successes of security forces in Operation Zarb-e-Azb," he said.
"People who abandoned their native areas ... are returning home," he said. "Those who earn their bread and butter from tourism have turned their eyes toward a new future."