KARACHI, Pakistan, Sept. 20 --
Deadly monsoons across much of Pakistan have caused the Thar Desert to bloom, spurring tourism that is helping the local economy to flourish.
The rains each season since 2010, which cause flash floods in middle and upper Pakistan, have brought new life to the once-barren desert in southeastern Pakistan along the Indian border. The region is now becoming a tourist destination, with visitors attracted by its natural beauty and who find it a rare peaceful oasis in an often-turbulent country.
Tourism industry sources said tens of thousands of tourists came to the desert's southern parts this summer, including the Tharparkar District. The tourists are mostly Pakistani, although a few foreigners have come, most from international non-governmental organizations, they said.
Tour operators say the rise has provided employment to many residents of the desert, and local shopkeepers are happy with the increasing traffic.
"Our sales have risen 400 percent since the tourists started arriving in the area," said Dileep Kumar, who sells local embroidery and other handicrafts in Mithi, capital of Tharparkar District.
The district's government does not keep count of tourists or accommodations, but the number of government and private guesthouses in the area has risen from four with 21 rooms in 2009 to 11 with 64 rooms last year, unofficial figures show. The border force that keeps records on every vehicle entering the area counted 2,385 tourist vehicles since the tourism season started in July -- a huge number in this region.
The subtropical Thar Desert has 1.21 million people living across its 77,000 square miles (fewer than 16 people per square mile), much of it in India. It is about 195 miles from Karachi, although poor road conditions make the trip lengthy and there is no civilian airport nearby.
With desert lakes and vast dunes that shift with the wind in the areas known as "the White Desert," Thar also has red granite mountains -- the Karoonjhar Hills. It is home to several unique wildlife species, and is known for local art, music, handicrafts and heritage sites.
This year's rains have brought greenery to the area -- food for people and grass for animals -- and herders who had moved north have started returning. The rains have also shortened the journey for women who, during the dry season, walk miles in sizzling desert heat to collect water. Naturally depressed areas have turned into rain-filled ponds.
Some Karachi tour operators arrange trips to Thar Desert. Abdul Majeed, manager of Exploring Indus Tours, told UPI Next his company charges $400 to $600 for a four-day trip, including transportation, lodging and food.
Tourists interviewed spoke highly of the hospitality of Thar residents, who live in cone-shaped huts and mostly farm.
"Everyone here is welcoming; their hospitality is great," Muhammad Nisar, a tourist from Sindh province, told UPI Next.
"Also, the night is awesome. I never ever saw millions of stars twinkling up above in the sky and the Milky Way."
Bharumal Amrani, a Mithi social worker, told UPI Next that Tharis love to host vacationers.
"This is the only place in Pakistan where not even a single crime has been reported for many years, and most of the people leave their cattle free in the wild," Amrani said.
"This is not possible anywhere else in the country.”
Muhammad Bachal Rahupoto, head of the Tharparkar Muhammad District police, concurred.
"The crime rate in the desert is almost zero," he told UPI Next. "There is not a single case of snatching, street crime, armed robbery or sectarian violence, which is common in other parts of the country."
Muhammad Zaman, a native of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province who now works in real estate in Karachi, came to Tharparkar with his friends. He mentioned street crimes and fears of targeted shootings in the city, but said "here in this desert area, I don't feel any fear that someone has planted an explosive in the sand mounds, and I am not afraid that some armed men riding on motorbike will come and will shoot me."
The Thar Desert attracts wildlife enthusiasts, with many species of birds, reptiles, mammals and insects, along with various desert herbs and plants. The Sindh province Wildlife Department estimated the desert had 80,000 Indian blue peafowl.
Mohan Das, a primary school teacher in Mithi, mentioned peafowl, telling UPI Next that after rains, "you can see these birds dancing everywhere."