Imagine a hundred and seventy two different varieties of flowers on an endless plateau that stretches for miles in every direction. Imagine a pristine, aquamarine stream cutting through. Imagine yourself at the centre of an enormous crown of white, majestic mountains, levitating over a bed of clouds. Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it?

This dream, popularly known as Deosai, is the second highest plateau in the world and only four hours north of Islamabad via plane and jeep. It’s a dream we can have over and over again, but as foreigners flock to these plains every year, Deosai remains a mystery to most Pakistanis.

Considering the fate of several hill resorts (that look more like pastries and less like peaceful retreats), promoting Deosai becomes a tricky proposition because nothing could be more tragic than its unregulated development.

And while tourism may not be a priority for our leaders, especially when basic health, energy, education and security needs are still far from being met, Deosai and its adjoining areas have ample and appropriate infrastructure to support a significant surge in domestic tourism. This is primarily so because tourist activity has gradually declined in this area in the aftermath of the ‘war on terror’, forcing hoteliers, restaurateurs, taxi drivers and other service industry professionals to look for alternate means of income.

Satpara, one of the highest lakes in Pakistan was once a popular tourist attraction around Deosai. After a recent hydel project, Satpara is now also a main source of power for the people of Skardu (the only major town around Deosai) and that means no power outages. Still, even with uninterrupted amenities, the city is far from buzzing.

Tourist activity has progressively dwindled in Skardu because Gilgit-Baltistan – home to a majority of our natural wonders, including Deosai – is geographically contiguous to and often associated with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a state that has now long been mired in conflict. This adds an altogether new dimension to the issue of promoting Deosai and its adjoining areas.

When I last visited Satpara to sample the highly sought after trout of the region, the restaurant by the edge of the lake was abandoned. After a considerable amount of time, chairs and tables were dragged out from storage while the chef himself boarded a motorboat with fishing paraphernalia to go find us lunch!

Amongst the many attractions around Deosai, the restaurant at Satpara is one of the more popular stops for tourists. Yet it struggles. There are a plethora of other small businesses that are not as popular and in the absence of tourist traffic, it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to survive.

The irony is, that unlike other beautiful valleys in Gilgit-Baltistan that are too narrow to entertain jet planes, aerial entry into Skardu is wide enough for a Boeing 737. Despite this, Skardu’s international airport has no international flights. This could obviously change if we used mass mediums to showcase Gilgit-Baltistan as a secure province for foreigners, and at the same time promoted its natural wonders to domestic tourists. As summer approaches, organizations like the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) must consider this a viable, buyable campaign.

In an ideal world, the plan is flawless, but if we are unable to develop our northern areas in harmony with their natural environments, then we must not develop them at all. Regulated, responsible and aesthetically sound development is the real challenge; indeed, losing our only significant natural heritage to heightened tourist traffic is not an option.

In Deosai, it is heart warming to see that a handful of people still care about the environment. An eight-person team of the Northern Areas Forests, Parks & Wildlife Department has the mammoth task of patrolling 3000 square kilometers of flat land on foot and motorbikes. These brave men have set camp next to a major water stream that cuts across the plain and they are the de facto guardians of the plateau.

When temperatures fall below zero after night falls, they huddle up in a fabricated, fiberglass igloo. During the day, when temperatures miraculously soar, they dodge the sun and Deosai’s enormous mosquitoes. They traverse the plains to sight bears and to share the experience with the odd tourist. And finally, as though all of the above wasn’t enough, they man the water bodies and guard freshwater trout from surreptitious fishermen.

When I last visited Deosai, I promised the Wildlife team hats and nets for protection from the blistering sun and mosquitoes. In retrospect today, I think they could use a lot more than just a net and hat to keep Deosai spotless in the years ahead. Deosai is, after all, the ‘land of giants,’ and sooner or later, people will flock in large numbers to witness its wonder. It must be understood in its most absolute form and promoted within the bounds of its natural environment. In all its magnificence, this ‘land of giants’ must not be dwarfed by the ideas, or the profit of men.

The writer is a communications consultant based in Lahore.

Email:Khizr.imran@gmail.com