Heralding a New Future Through the Past

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Fig. 1. Shigar Serena Fort

The use of heritage lodging as a means of sustainable tourism using the example of the Serena Shigar Fort located in the Northern Areas of Pakistan

Gilgit-Baltistan, separated and isolated through chasms formed by the Himalayas and Karakoram mountain ranges, possesses a rich cultural heritage which includes festivals, cuisines, art and musical heritage as well as imposing palaces and forts boasting masterful intricacies in woodwork and design.

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Fig. 2. Shigar Serena surroundings

There tends to be a general ignorance overall in South East Asia towards the value to cultural assets, and here too the cultural artefacts were once in ruins and threatened with extinction. The region was brought into contact with the modern world with the opening of the Karakoram Highway in 1984 linking Pakistan to China and opening it up to tourism opportunities. With the inflow of tourists, came also the threats of erosion of culture and identity through the forces of globalization.

The Serena Hotels brand, operating as a subsidiary of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED), has the mandate to develop tourism potential in various regions of the country, particularly in under-served regions. The hotel chain’s business model supports heritage conservation and employs responsible environmental and social practices; the design philosophy is to tastefully showcase local culture and work towards restoration and maintenance of cultural assets.

One case in point is the Serena Shigar Fort Residence in the Skardu Valley of Gilgit Baltistan. Located at a height of 2,250 meters, the 400 years old Shigar Fort standing on the bank of Shigar stream is built upon a massive rock and was once the seat of the ruling dynasty of Shigar. It is a three-storey structure constructed from timber cribbage. The fort was constructed by Kashmiri workmen, carpenters, goldsmiths and masons, hired by Raja Hasan Khan with the permission of the Kashmiri Raja. With its method of construction, building techniques and decorative style, it is a unique architectural specimen which once lay in ruins. The restoration of the Shigar Fort in Baltistan was undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) and the Aga Khan Cultural Services Programme Pakistan (AKCS-P) in which converted it into an exclusive hotel and museum, after which the operational charge was given to Serena Hotels to run these sites as Heritage Lodges.

The faithfully restored rooms present a cosy feel with use of native stone, walnut floors and handmade period furniture, fabrics and antiques that create welcoming spaces. Guests can savour enticing Balti cuisine crafted with locally sourced ingredients from on-site picturesque fruit orchards, and vegetable gardens. The stone courtyards next to running streams offer visitors a peaceful natural setting.

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Fig. 3. Royal Suite

Serena Shigar Fort combines the intricacies and character of the original structures with luxury finishes, providing a unique cultural tourism experience to local and foreign tourists alike.

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Fig. 4. Heritage Suite at the Shigar Serena

The heritage lodge captures value for the communities at various stages, from economic uplift through tourism in the region, to input from local craftsmen and artisans for construction and interior décor. Serena Shigar Fort heritage lodge, alongwith the other heritage properties under the stewardship of Serena Hotels including Serena Khaplu Palace in the same Skardu Valley, is creating a significant impact on the economic, social and investment landscape of the region. These heritage lodges have helped revive the culture and heritage of the communities of the Gilgit-Baltistan region, and capture the imagination of the local as well as foreign tourists.