Strategically located Gilgit-Baltistan borders the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan to the northwest, China’s Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang to the northeast, the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir to the south and southeast, the Pakistani-controlled state of Azad Jammu and Kashmir to the south, and Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to the west. There is a great scope for development of tourism industry in Gilgi-Baltistan, which is home to more than fifty peaks above 7000 meters. The region has some of the world’s highest mountain ranges including Karakoram and western Himalayas ranges. The region’s enormous tourism potential can efficiently be tapped with improved air, road and rail connectivity.
Islamabad has formulated a strategy to put its ever neglected northern areas, which are now called Gilgit-Baltistan, on the path of the fast track development with the help and cooperation of China. Some analysts call it a Pakistan-China development strategy for Gilgit-Baltistan under which steps would be taken for upgradation of Karakoram Highway, Skardu and Gilgit airport and improvement of Sost Dry Port at Pak-China border to enhance bilateral trade links. Pakistan plans to seek Chinese help for upgrading the two airports in Gilgit-Baltistan in the country’s north to ensure uninterrupted flights in the mountainous region in all weathers. State-run Pakistan International Airline (PIA) operates 12 weekly flights between Gilgit and Islamabad, but the flights are subject to the clearance of weather. The flights are often cancelled or delayed by several days due to turbulent weather. Gilgit-Baltistan region is of key importance for China’s plan to set up a transportation, energy and trade corridor by establishing new air, road and rail links.
Gilgit airport is located at the edge of a slope. An aircraft as small as a Boeing 737 aircraft cannot land and take-off due to the short runway at Gilgit airport. Presently, the PIA operates French and Italian ATR-42 aircraft on the Gilgit-Islamabad route, while the military C-130 aircraft also operates at the airport.
Construction of all weather airports in Gilgit and Skardu will boost tourism, a major source of income for the local population, which has suffered immensely over the years due to frequent flights cancellation to the region. Gilgit and Skardu are the two main hubs for all mountaineering expeditions in Gilgit-Baltistan, known among foreign tourists for its stunning beauty and distinguished mountains. Many tourists choose to travel to Gilgit by air since the road travel between Islamabad and Gilgit by Karakoram Highway (KKH) takes nearly 24 hours, while the air travel takes only about an hour.
Construction of all-weather airports would be instrumental to expanding the tourism industry. The flight to the region is considered one of the most scenic flights of the world as its route passes over Nanga Parbat and the mountain’s peak is higher than the aircraft’s cruising altitude. The blockage or closure of the KKH due to land sliding not only affects tourism but also the Pakistan-China border trade that runs into millions of dollars.
The KKH, a vital border trade link, connects China’s Xinjiang region with Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan. It has almost become inaccessible after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan that severely damaged it. The traveling timing from Islamabad to Gilgit has now increased to 24 hours, from previously 14-hour journey. It is not comfortable for tourists to travel through the region via KKH, hence they prefer air travel. Traveling and transportation of goods through the KKH frequently go to suspension due to fears of flooding or land sliding.
Some experts argue that landslide is the consequence of a chain reaction of mega engineering activities being carried out by China for reconstructing KKH and other projects in Gilgit-Baltistan. The experts believe that the reconstruction projects are causing serious damage to the geology of the area, making it vulnerable to landslides and other catastrophes. They warn that landslide disasters may happen frequently in future and even in worse manner, until these incidents are understood logically and scientifically to evolve a preventive strategy.
In December 2010, Pakistan and China launched the air cargo service from Islamabad to Kashgar. The air cargo service is the part of present economic policy framework of the Chinese government that envisages priority to the development of the western regions including Xinjiang with substantial investment. The plan includes the development of infrastructure such extension of high speed train and other modes of transport and communication. Beijing would have distinct advantages for its improved transportation and access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. The proposed Havelian-Khunjerab rail link would connect China with Gwadar port in Balochistan, which is strategically located opposite to the Strait of Hormuz. The two countries already signed memoranda of understanding (MoUs) for building two major highways in Gilgit-Baltistan. Under the deal, two highway projects worth Rs45 billion would be financed in ratio of 15 percent by Pakistan and 85 percent by China. China will build the 165km long Jaglot-Skardu road and the 135km long Thakot-Sazin road.
Chinese engineers have completed a feasibility study for the building of a railroad and an oil pipeline to link Kashi in Xinjiang and Gwadar in Balochistan. It will provide China with the shortest possible route to the oil -rich Middle East, replacing the dangerous maritime route through the South China Sea, East China Sea and the Yellow Sea. With the construction of the Kashi-Gwadar rail road and oil pipeline, Gwadar port will handle most of the oil tankers to China. Presently, sixty percent of China’s imported oil comes from the Middle East and 80 percent of that transported to China through the unsafe Straits of Malacca.
The analysts believe that Chinese will be keen in making investments in all weather airports, as the move will not only help improve air connectivity to the region but it will also be a ‘strategic addition’ to Chinese stakes in the area that connects China’s western province of Xinjiang to Pakistan. Upgradation of airports in Gilgit and Skardu may open a Kashgar-Gilgit route which will further increase Chinese presence in the region.
China sees Gilgit-Baltistan as its strategic hinterland for carrying out its future trade and energy supply projects from energy-rich central Asia and considers Gilgit a gateway to central Asia.