It was clear from this experience that meaningful restoration works needed to be associated with the ongoing rehabilitation of traditional settlements as well as the promotion of building techniques. Projects in Hunza and Baltistan have included the restoration of several other historic forts and former palaces, as well as other culturally relevant landmark buildings. The forts in Baltit and Altit in Hunza are local history museums and cultural centres, while Shigar Fort and Khaplu Palace Residence in Baltistan both serve as small hotels offering authentic heritage experiences for visitors and generate employment and various other benefits for the local communities. A recent project includes the 90-year-old Vazir House in Swat, which has been converted into a heritage guesthouse. In Altit, the Leif Larsen Music Centre has been established to facilitate local musicians and to document the musical traditions of Hunza and its neighbouring valleys. This initiative is part of a broader goal to promote the region’s intangible heritage – languages, folklore, music, arts and crafts, traditional performances and sports.
The villages and neighbourhoods around the Forts, which were in danger of being deserted in favour of dispersed modern construction in the fields, were – and continue to be – rehabilitated through the active efforts of residents. These activities represent a new trend that not only boosts cultural pride, but also helps reduce costs for road construction and infrastructure provision, saving the precious agricultural terraces from uncontrolled construction. Preserving indigenous values and at the same time introducing contemporary living standards, including sanitation, has been the key to the ongoing cultural development process. It is important to underscore that these projects are undertaken with the active involvement of the local communities.
Additionally, social enterprises are being facilitated in raising awareness about the use of traditional building practices and in promoting the use of greenwoods, such as poplar, for construction. As a means to address rural poverty and to encourage the participation of women in local economic activities, a pilot initiative was introduced in 2003 to provide women from poor households access to income generating opportunities through participation in ongoing restoration projects. Since then, Ciqam – a women’s social enterprise, has evolved into an effective vehicle to engage women in non-traditional skills such as topographic and building surveys, carpentry, hospitality and tourism.
Strategic planning principles to both protect and take advantage of existing environmental and cultural assets in the light of growing tourism are now being implemented through a comprehensive tourism management plan. Partnerships with the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan as well as law enforcement agencies, hoteliers, local municipalities, community-based organisations and other AKDN agencies have been strengthened to ensure that the negative effects of tourism are mitigated in a collective and holistic manner.
These projects have won a number of prestigious prizes, including the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation (every year between 2002 and 2013); a Time Magazine “Best of Asia”; and a British Airways Tourism for Tomorrow Award for the restoration of Baltit Fort and Responsible Tourism Awards for Shigar and Khaplu forts.
AKTC has completed dozens of other restoration projects in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral, but the area remains a treasure trove of shrines, forts, mosques and other buildings of cultural and historical significance. Most have fallen into ruin, but the potential still exists to use the experience provided by previous revitalisation projects to convert this legacy into viable economic assets that then lead to the creation of jobs, economic stability and an improved quality of life.