Lahore, Pakistan – Tour guide Adil Lahorei was told by his clients from Eastern Europe that it was time to head north immediately as temperatures hit 40 degrees Celsius in the capital city of Punjab state.
In May, Pakistan witnessed its hottest April in 61 years. March had been the ninth driest since 1961. The heatwave meant Lahore’s traditional springtime had already begun betraying elements of peak summer.
“Usually the travel itinerary for foreign tourists includes staying for a few days in Lahore,” Adil told Al Jazeera. “Some even head down to southern parts of Punjab, and then they leave for the north after a week or so. But this year guests who arrived in April and even March wanted to leave for the mountains right away.”
Pakistani authorities issued warnings that temperatures up to nine degrees Celsius above normal were expected. As a result, Lahore’s tourism industry – accustomed to foreign visitors until the end of May – was shell-shocked.
While rising temperatures have pushed visitors out of Lahore, they are being increasingly lured to the north not only owing to the cool weather, but also because glaciers melting early in the season mean tourist attractions opening faster than usual. When passes such as Babusar, Deosai, and Khunjerab become passable, countless lakes, parks and other scenic sites are accessible to tourists.
“It used to be unheard of for Khunjerab Pass to be open this time of the year. But due to global warming, the tourist season for the northern areas is starting sooner. Meanwhile, I only have a single tourist query for Lahore for the summer,” Adil said.
Knockout punch for Pakistan
Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city and 25km (15 miles) from the Indian border, has been a cultural hub for centuries, with architectural heritage giving hat tips to the British and the Mughals among the many rulers to have governed this much-coveted land. However, the decades-old quest of global travellers to explore Lahore’s rich history has been hit by one crisis after another.
After the September 11 attacks on the United States, the city – like the rest of the country – was hit by a wave of deadly attacks. After nationwide military operations, some semblance of security returned, and it brought along an influx of tourists.
“Tourism had begun growing in Pakistan and especially in Lahore at the end of the last decade. But then COVID-19 struck,” Adil said.
While the global tourism industry was jolted by the coronavirus pandemic, it was yet another knockout punch for Pakistan, which had only just begun its recovery. Despite the country’s relative success in countering COVID-19, the pandemic also brought a climate wake-up call for Lahore.
‘Most polluted city’
Clearer skies witnessed during lockdowns underlined what the daily industry-transportation churn was doing to the city, where an annual smogfest renders the air unbreathable during the bridge between autumn and winter. Tourism, naturally, takes a hit when Lahore becomes the world’s most polluted city in November and December.
“In case anyone wants to look at harmful impacts of climate change and environmental degradation, Lahore is an excellent example,” said Tauqeer Qureshi, former director of Punjab’s Environmental Protection Department.
Qureshi told Al Jazeera that the failure to implement environmental regulations and a lack of political will continue to exacerbate Pakistan’s environmental troubles and, in turn, its struggles with tourism.
Environmentalist Saima Baig said Lahore’s plight cannot be corrected as industrial emissions, the burning of crop residue, brick kilns and general waste continue to go unchecked.
“All of these can be reversed with good environmental policies that fine industries for emissions, work with farmers to stop them from burning fields and find alternatives, and a more efficient and effective waste management policy,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Vehicle maintenance and promoting electric vehicles should be part of the country’s overall climate policy. While solar energy is being promoted now, it is essential to look into other renewable technologies like wind energy and even wave energy [to address climate change].”
‘A green revolution’
Nothing illustrates Lahore’s climate crisis better than the upper deck of the hop-on hop-off city tour buses run by the Tourism Development Corporation of Punjab (TDCP).
Abid Shaukat, TDCP’s public relations officer, said ticket sales for the double-decker bus are impacted by Lahore’s multipronged environmental challenges.
“The open-air upper deck is where you get the best view. But as early as March, many find the upper heck too hot to sit in and instead prefer the lower, closed, air-conditioned deck,” Shaukat told Al Jazeera. “Similarly, when there’s smog many don’t want to be exposed to it on the top deck.”
Tourism development expert Ashfaq Khan said when he was studying the sector in Europe four decades ago, it was taught that weather is the primary factor.
“But the urban planning in Lahore continues to be carried out as if to deliberately aggravate the impacts of global warming,” Khan said.
“They’re replacing the green countryside with more and more cement. I feel embarrassed every time I tell my guests, ‘Welcome to the City of Gardens’,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Everyone Pakistani should plant a tree. The country needs a green revolution … Tourism, or anything in the country for that matter, will not prosper if we don’t get our priorities straight.”