Learning from the avoidable Murree tragedy
Accidents do happen despite careful planning, even in organized societies boasting developed infrastructure and trained staff-- but this was a tragedy that, almost everyone agreed, could have been easily avoided.
Murree, a hill resort conveniently located at about an hour’s drive from Pakistan’s capital city Islamabad, attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year during the holiday season. Most of these tourists, coming from as far away as the port city of Karachi located some 1500 kilometers in the south, visit during summer to escape the scorching heat of the plains. But lately a large number of tourists flock to Murree during winters too especially during the brief spell of snowfall, a phenomenon that is never experienced in most populous parts of the country. If the snowfall coincides with the winter school break, the number of tourists multiply and this is what happened this year in January when an estimated 155,000 cars, jeeps and SUVs landed in Murree against a capacity to accommodate only 4,000 vehicles. The resulting mess jammed traffic on narrow streets of the tiny town and adjoining approach roads.
Since hotels could not accommodate all the tourists, hotel owners started demanding prohibitively high rates forcing many people with their families including small children, in many cases, to spend the night in their vehicles. Initially the snowfall sights must have been enjoyable but as the snow storm intensified and night fell, the tragedy started to descend on these innocent fun-seeking tourists. While snow heaped on the vehicles, the constantly running car heaters became the only lifeline to beat the sub zero temperatures. The real disaster struck when snow piled against the vehicles’ exhaust pipes forcing the deadly carbon monoxide fumes back into the cars. The next morning, at least 23 tourists including women and 10 children were found dead in their cars buried under snow.
Our civil administration at Murree demonstrated a stark lack of advance planning and preparedness to cope with the short surge of tourists-- which by now is a predictable seasonal phenomenon.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
This was the first time in the living history of Murree that tourists had to lose their lives in this number and in such tragic circumstances. The Prime Minister has ordered an executive enquiry into the tragedy but, as expected, the opposition is insisting on a judicial commission. Irrespective of what kind of committee or commission looks into the reasons and circumstances that led to what happened on the night of January 7, some obvious lessons are there for all to learn and set into motion some long-neglected corrective actions.
The government had been justly placing a great emphasis on promoting domestic as well as international tourism in Pakistan. PM Khan has claimed that attracting international tourists in great numbers to our pristine and scenic north can go a long way in earning much-needed foreign exchange and addressing our perennial economic problems. He has also advocated the promotion of ‘religious tourism,’ attracting greater numbers of Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist visitors to their historical and holy places located at various places in Pakistan. This promotion of tourists’ attractions, should, however start after some basic infrastructural development and provision of amenities. As the Murree tragedy has once again highlighted, our infrastructure, hotels, administration and planning procedures are unable to keep pace even with domestic tourism. A much greater effort needs to be made to commission and implement a master plan for tourism in Pakistan. It is a highly specialized and professional exercise and political and partisan considerations will have to be kept aside while picking people to lead such efforts.
Our civil administration at Murree demonstrated a stark lack of advance planning and preparedness to cope with the short surge of tourists-- which by now is a predictable seasonal phenomenon. Weather forecasts were quite accurate and the snowstorm was expected. Its impact however, was not properly ascertained. Sufficient snow clearing and traffic management arrangements were lacking. If the availability of funds and machinery was a problem, the issues should have been raised earlier.
One obvious remedial measure which could have been taken was the control of vehicular movement towards Murree. There are toll collecting posts on almost all the approach roads and collection of statistics about entering vehicles from all these posts should be integrated so that the status can be monitored in real time. The situation would not have got so out of control if the entry of vehicles could have been regulated.
It seems that hotels, food outlets and vendors were given full liberty to fleece tourists and charge whatever they deemed fit. No price regulation or quality monitoring mechanism was in place. Some heart rending stories of tourists depositing family jewelry to secure expensive but substandard hotel accommodation on and around that fateful night have also come to light.
Will this tragedy wake the administration up to avoid further heartaches season after season?
*Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT.