Paragliding takes flight in Pakistan as economy booms

For Pakistan’s new class of affluent but bored young people, action sports like paragliding are providing a healthier outlet than fast cars and recreational substances.

“It is better than drugs and drag racing on city roads,” says local pioneer Sajjad Shah (43) as he unloads gliders from his green Toyota Prado in the scenic north-western village of Thipra.

Shah, one of the country’s top pilots, says people often approach him and his friends when they fly in the Margalla Hills overlooking the capital, Islamabad, and beg to be taught how to paraglide.

“Paragliding is not an expensive sport and for youths who destroy cars worth millions of rupees in a night while racing it is no big deal for them,” said Shah, who is also president of the Pakistan Association of Free Flying.

On a recent trip Shah and his fellow pilots made a steep 45-minute climb in this sub-Himalayan region then unpacked the fabric wings, put them on the ground and hooked them to their harnesses.

One by one they stood facing the wind before the gliders lifted them into the sky. Minutes later the pilots landed in the cornfields below as schoolchildren in ragged clothes gathered to greet them.

“Only a paraglider pilot knows why birds sing,” said fellow pilot Abdul Jabbar Bhatti after touching down.

Despite fears of terrorism since September 11 2001 that have sent tourist numbers plummeting, top paragliders have recently visited the flying school run by Shah and friends at Thirpa.

One top flyer, Leroy Westerkamp of The Netherlands, this year set a new world record for gaining height while paragliding, ascending 4 526 metres to reach an altitude of 7 685m in Pakistan’s northern Hunza district.

The Dutchman will return next year to fly over the 8 611m K2, the world’s second highest mountain, in a paraglider.

The Pakistan Association of Free Flying plans to hold an international paragliding festival next year at Chajian near Islamabad.

The only setback to the sport has been the April 2006 government ban on paragliding near Islamabad for security reasons.

“Paragliding has a great potential to promote tourism in Pakistan and we have sponsored paragliding events” during the famous Shandur polo festival in north-west Pakistan, said Jahangir Khan, deputy chief of Pakistan Tourism Development.

Pakistan’s economy has also soared in recent years. Growth was 8,4% in 2004/05, its highest in two decades, and although it dipped to 6,6%, officials say the outlook is still good.

Analysts say the booming economy has enhanced the buying power of the middle-classes of the 150-million population, while those with old money are living luxuriously.

Pakistan’s first Rolls-Royce showroom opened in Lahore this week and other luxury carmakers, including Porsche, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, are branching out.

“We have sold 50 Porches during the past 10 months and the demand is still rising,” said Taimur Malik, sales manager of Autotechnik Private Limited, which opened Pakistan’s first Porsche facility last year, also in Lahore.

“Pakistan is a booming automobile market and that is why Porsche itself selected it to sell their high-end exclusive cars,” he said.

“A loose monetary policy and increased remittances from overseas has benefited the middle and upper-middle class over the past five or six years,” said Mohammad Sohail, an economic analyst.

“The resultant boom has brought further riches to the already rich,” Sohail said.

Instant gratification is hard to come by in Pakistan and here buyers have to wait months for their luxury cars — and often for lesser models — despite paying in advance.

And with a ban on the public consumption of alcohol meaning that organised nightlife is almost non-existent in Pakistan, young people find themselves similarly frustrated.

Extreme sports could provide them with the outlet, suggests paraglider Shah.

“It provides more of a thrill than riding a motorbike with its front wheel in the air and losing one’s life,” he says. — AFP

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