Freshly-harvested cherries in Gilgit city of Pakistan's northern Gilgit-Baltistan region, being packed by locals. This photo was taken in June 2021. Image Credit: Xinhua

Islamabad: It is the cherry season in Pakistan’s northern Gilgit-Baltistan region where farmers are preparing to harvest bright red cherries and send them off to markets.

This year, the cherry farmers anticipate doubling their incomes and profits as China has indicated opening its doors to importing cherries for the first time from Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), which shares borders with China.

A 14-member Chinese business delegation visited GB where they signed multiple memorandums of understanding (MoUs) this week to facilitate cherry trade. The delegation assessed the local cherry production, and inspected cherry orchards, packing units, and cold storage facilities, aiming to explore the potential of importing cherries to Chinese markets.

Mohammad Ali Quaid, the special assistant to the GB chief minister, told reporters that the key approval would come from the Chinese quarantine department which is planning a visit to GB to pave the way for exports.

The export of cherries from Pakistan to China would commence once all necessary procedures are met. China is the leading importer of cherries with imports valued at $2.66 billion in 2021, according to data from the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC).

Cherries of Gilgit-Baltistan

In recent years, the cherry has emerged as GB’s main cash crop. Around 8,000 metric tonnes of cherries are harvested each year in the scenic region, generating around Rs700 million in revenue annually, according to Javed Akhtar, deputy director at GB’s agriculture department.

The cherry season spans from May to July. Some of the cherry varieties grown in the region are Bing, Chelan, Rainier, Lepin and Tulare, according to a government study.

Local food experts say that the newfound opportunity holds great potential for the farmers of GB, paving the way for enhanced economic prospects and a significant boost to the agricultural sector.

Hazif ur Rehman, project director of Khashal Cherry Farm in Gilgit-Baltistan’s Ghanche district, is hopeful that the market access to China will be “much more beneficial for local farmers” due to GB’s proximity to the world’s largest cherry market and the perishable nature of the fruit. Besides GB, the other major cherry-growing region of Pakistan is the Balochistan province.

Pakistan and China have also launched two new air cargo routes to strengthen connectivity between the two countries. The new routes will link Nanning, the capital of China’s Guangxi autonomous region, with the Pakistani cities of Karachi and Lahore.

These flights aim to facilitate the transportation of Pakistani fruits and seafood to China while also delivering Chinese clothing accessories and other goods from Nanning to the Pakistani market.