Every now and then we fancy flying up high ‘literally’ and not only figuratively. Do we really need wings to fly? Yes, we do. Humans who fly through means other than an air jet do so through well quite a few means including paragliding. Paragliding and how it’s contributing to our tourism industry is what we would like to talk about today.
The evolving tourism industry in Pakistan is reshaping the trade. When we think of tourism as business, we mostly come across tour operators – who are the backbone of the industry.
In recent times, the way tour operators work has also changed, for instance, they not only arrange guided tours but also endeavor to show you a positive face of Pakistan by helping travelers experience the culture in its entirety. Another less explored avenue of revenue generation in relation to tourism in Pakistan is the likes of guest houses; Air BnB, Couch Surfing and Tourists hostels. Travelers on budget like to stay in cheap yet safe and home like environment. We figured out that travel operators are being sufficiently supported by such cosy spaces as is the Backpackers’ Hostel operating in the capital since a year and a half. These reasonable boarding spaces are also helping the local tourists to contribute to the tourism industry.
In the past few years, Pakistan has witnessed an influx of travelers from the world over as well as an upsurge in local tourism. There are multiple reasons for this growth. Stability in the region, improved overall national security; growing awareness; ease of travel because of the increased transport options and lenient visa policies being key.
Another reason for why we see a myriad of foreign tourists in the country is the declining value of rupee which makes Pakistan an affordable, desirable travel and adventure destination.
Besides enthralling mountains, breath taking water bodies and thrilling treks, Pakistan also hosts multiple adventurous sports that attract global tourism including skiing, rafting, polo and others. A recent addition to this adventure is paragliding. There are around 80 paragliders in the country who operate under the Pakistan Hang-gliding and Paragliding Association (PHPA) .
Our lofty mountain ranges are the second most challenging ranges for paragliding after the Swiss Alps. Mountains in Chitral, Muzzafarabad and Gilgit Baltistan offer terrific yet an exotic experience. In the past few years, many foreign tourists have made their way to these mountains. They come for the paragliding, they stay for the hospitality.
In the summers of 2016, Antoine Girard, a French paraglider broke the 8,000 m mark in high-altitude cross-country paragliding. Girard soared the Broad Peak in the Karakorum which is the world’s 12th highest mountain, in a seven-hour flight.
In a recent chat, Startup Magazine interviewed a paraglider from Switzerland visiting Pakistan for the very first time. Here’s what he had to say about paragliding and his experience in Pakistan.
Tell us about yourself?
I am Jean Luc from Switzerland. I am an electrician by profession and I paraglide for leisure. I was almost 8 years old when I first came across paragliding as a sport. Each time I saw them flying, I thought to myself if I could also fly like them and then asked my mother if I could do so. She told me that I should only when am old enough for the sport and can afford it. Paragliding has a high cost!
How did all this start?
At the age of 25, I realised that there is no reason why I shouldn’t pursue paragliding. One day I saw some paragliders again taking off from a mountain and I knew right away that this is exactly what I want to take up in life but who knew it would become a passion. I approached a paraglider who happened to be a trainer and had been paragliding for 30 years, agreed to train me. He told me that the only place where he found mountains more beautiful than Switzerland was Pakistan. He advised me to first get my paragliding license and then fly out to Pakistan to experience paragliding.
How was the training experience?
Whilst one is training, its not the flight which is intimidating but the first jump to take off. I was able to take my first independent flight in the first week of my training and I did alright. The training is followed by a theoretical exam similar to driving exam. Alongside you must exercise to build muscle strength. Since the equipment is quite heavy, one must be physically strong. So, I had to regularly exercise and eat well. There is never an end to your training. Despite flying for 8 years, I still feel that each flight teaches me something new. Once you have trained and passed your written and practical exams you are issued a lifetime license.
Where was your first flight outside Switzerland?
My first overseas flying experience was in Nepal. The country gave me quite a cultural shock but as soon as I started flying in the Himalayas, I felt I was back in my comfort zone. After Nepal I went to India. Both countries enriched my flying experience. All this time I always wanted to visit Pakistan, but I felt I wasn’t ready. I was also wary of being in Pakistan because of its distorted international repute.
How did you make it to Pakistan?
Before arriving in Pakistan, my trainer who is friends with the US pilot Brad Sanders who is now a resident in Pakistan, connected us both. Through Brad I was able to get in touch with PHPA who assisted me with my visa. The president of PHPA, Syed Sajjad Hussain Shah invited me to take my first flight with him in Muzaffarbad, which happened to be my first flying destination in Pakistan. Soon after, I found myself in Gilgit-Baltistan. I loved not only flying in Hunza but also staying at the Eagle’s Nest. The hospitality of Pakistani people is unmatchable. I never felt away from home. One of my most memorable and strikingly amazing flying experience was in Chitral. The weather conditions were most favourable which made my paragliding stunts all the more worth it.
What are the critical factors for paragliding?
Every sport has some rules and pre-requisites. Paragliders must embrace some critical factors before taking their flight. Evidently paragliding is not an easy sport and comes with a high cost in case of even a minor slip.
Study the sport: anything that we adopt as hobby desires that we must research on it. As we grow in our research our hobby turns into passion. Paragliding or any other sport requires you to know the ins and outs of it. If you don’t have enough grasp on the science behind what you claim as your ‘passion’ you are only partially an expert on it. And one day whilst you are flying, something challenging could happen and due to your lack of knowledge, you could last in the worst-case scenario.
Weather conditions: a bright sunny day is ideal for paragliding. Hot air currents help fly on high altitudes. One must understand the weather patterns very well and keenly observe any change of weather condition even during the flight. If there is a doubt, it is advisable not to fly.
Patience: as for many things in life, patience is the key in paragliding as well. One learns through experience, stepwise. There is no point in rushing into learning everything about the sport immediately. Patience is a virtue even while you paraglide!
Risk management: knowing your limits while flying is absolutely critical. One can never be too sure of anything while flying but it’s important to do a risk assessment and take important precautionary measures to avoid any untoward situation. Paragliding not only enables you to be a risk taker but also teaches you risk estimation. However, the key here is not to push yourself too beyond your limits.
Mental strength: whilst physical strength is evidently required for paragliding or any sport for that matter, mental strength must not be ignored. Every sport desires for the sportsman to be emotionally strong and able to act pragmatically in any uncertain situation. Panic doesn’t help during a bad flight, instead one must be capable of fighting all odds. The will power to change your flight circumstances goes a long way.
Find a comrade: isn’t it the nicest thing to have your closest friend accompany you while flying? Well it is sensible to fly with a partner just so if you lose your sight or if there is a chance of you losing control, there is someone who knows where you took off from and can help you find your way back. GPS devices are also very handy during the flight, and that’s one thing you must spend on.
Paragliding competition in Pakistan
PHPA organised the first ever paragliding competition in Pakistan in September 2019. Paragliders from across the world were invited to participate and attend the event that included many other activities alongside paragliding. This competition which had the highest prize of USD 10,000 was to promote paragliding and tourism in Pakistan.
Pakistan currently is charging no fee from tourists willing to paraglide in Pakistan. Efforts are being made to provide a conducive environment for tourists to experience the thrill of paragliding in our diverse mountain ranges. Eventually there will be a cost added to this offer which will help the country generate revenue.
So, what happened next?
Well as much as I was looking forward to participating in the competition, I could not.
Why? I had a major accident, on my last flight in Duikar. I sustained multiple injuries. I broke a leg and dislocated an arm. I was immediately rushed back to Islamabad. A few days later, I was taken back to Switzerland via air ambulance. So that was the end of my visit to Pakistan but for this time only. As soon as I am back on my feet, I will expand my wings and fly out to Pakistan within no time.
Though Jean Luc’s paragliding experience in Pakistan culminated in a different climax from what he had envisioned, he had quite a few lessons to learn from and share with us. With consistent efforts from PHPA, we may see Pakistan as a thriving paragliding destination in just a few years from now.