Hopes for bumper tourist season in bin Laden town

Pakistani hoteliers in the now notorious town where Osama bin Laden was killed by elite US forces are praying the views and balmy weather still reel in bumper tourist numbers this year.

Considered one of the quietest towns in the northwest, nestled in pine-dotted hills and popular with day-trippers from the capital, Abbottabad is listed on Pakistan's official tourism website as a "popular summer resort".

The breezy language employed by the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation promoting a "charming town" gives no hint of forces that - according to a widow of bin Laden - housed the world's most-wanted terrorist for five years.

Instead it says the town is a base for trips to the beautiful Kaghan valley and recommends as "places worth visiting in and around Abbottabad" the Ilyasi mosque with its water spring, the Shimla view point and Thandiani hill resort.

Officials say the bin Laden episode might not dampen the inflow of tourists, since the peace of the city was barely disturbed and business has continued as usual. Indeed, said one, it might even be a bonus.

"I believe that tourism will not be impacted - rather, more people are coming to see the place where the incident happened," provincial secretary for tourism and culture Azam Khan told AFP.

"Abbottabad is a normal, peaceful city today as it was before."

The town is famous for its military training centres including the elite Pakistan Military Academy, but the surrounding hills attract people on short breaks from Islamabad and tourists escaping to cooler climes.

Hoteliers were upbeat, saying prospects for this summer were good.

"Praise be to God, we are doing good business and expect a full season," Hummayun Khan, manager of the Alpine hotel, told AFP.

"I don't think the recent incident will have a negative impact, because the city is still normal and peaceful and people are doing business without any fear."

Jibran Mirza, a manager at Gilani's guest house, said some people may this year prefer to go to Murree, another resort town north of Islamabad, but he did "not see any downslide" in business.

"Murree is overcrowded, so families prefer Abbottabad," he added.

Locals suspect that the comings and goings of tourists and migrants are exactly what enabled bin Laden to live there for so long undetected.

"It's a quiet town and gateway to northern areas and Kashmir," said another Pakistani security official when asked why Al-Qaeda might have considered Abbottabad as a hiding place.

"The transit nature of the city and the fact that a lot of people come from other towns and cities to escape the summer heat for a few months allow all kinds of people to stay in the city and leave without any footprints," he said.

Abbottabad is popular not just with visitors but with those looking to relocate. Its weather, peaceful reputation and the perceived security of a garrison have drawn many from other cities to work or educate their children.

There was an influx of migrants from Kashmir after the 2005 earthquake, and another from the northwestern tribal belt bordering Afghanistan after the army launched major operations against the Taliban in Waziristan and Swat in 2009.

And though it may be mainly tranquil, it is close to more troubled areas.

Abbottabad is bordered by Mansehra district in the north and in the east by Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir, where India alleges militants are trained.

To the south is the garrison city of Rawalpindi, where Taliban militants in October 2009 staged a brazen siege on the headquarters of the Pakistan army.

District police chief Karim Khan agreed that some militants might be hiding among the migrants, but claimed police had stepped up vigilance.

"About four months ago, we asked local property dealers to provide us details about the people renting houses in Abbottabad," Khan told AFP.

Asked whether religious schools might provide haven for militants, he said: "The (intelligence) agencies are regularly monitoring the madrassas."

Bin Laden's presence in the city has given rise to a political and diplomatic storm, with claims he must have had official collusion to hide there for so long.

District administration chief Zaheer Ul-Islam said bin Laden might have considered Abbottabad a secure place to hide.

"The army has been here since 1850 and we have a military academy and four military centres. This is not an ordinary city. Osama could have been here because because it's one of the most secure places."

Analyst Rahimullah Yusufzai said the town's popularity with visitors meant bin Laden could hide in plain sight.

"Abbottabad is a tourist city. It is easily accessible and (people can) live unnoticed by authorities. In summer there is rush of tourists from all parts of Pakistan," he told AFP.

"In this situation it is very likely that when the people who had links with militants were already settled in Abbottabad, that made easier for the senior militant figures to hide here - as nobody would be suspicious of newcomers."

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