Analysis & Opinion

The reviving prospects of tourism in Pakistan

Pakistan is fast becoming a tourism hub with its changing geo-strategic situation, improvement of internal as well as regional peace and liberalization of tourists’ visa policy (plans to offer visa on arrival to nationals of 55 countries). Sara Barbieri, a specialist with GeoEx said, “Explore the valleys of Hunza, Shigar and Khaplu via the renowned Karakoram Highway”. He also emphasized the hospitality of the locals, glacial blue of Attabad Lake, the centuries of history, juxtaposition of granite to greenery, the chance to walk through an age-old apricot orchard along water channels cut by hand, and the blazing snow-covered glory of Rakaposhi.

The Geography of Pakistan is a profound blend of landscapes varying from plains to deserts, forests, hills, and plateaus ranging from the coastal areas of the Arabian Sea in the south to the mountains of the Karakoram range in the north.Geographically located in South Asia, Pakistan is the world’s sixth-most populous country with a population exceeding 212,742,631 people. In area, it is the 33rd-largest country, spanning 881,913 square kilometers (340,509 square miles). Pakistan has a 1,046-kilometre (650-mile) coastline along the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman in the south and is bordered by India to the east, Afghanistan to the west, Iran to the southwest, and China in the far northeast. It is separated narrowly from Tajikistan by Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor in the northwest, and also shares a maritime border with Oman.Intriguingly, the territory that now constitutes Pakistan was the site of several ancient cultures and intertwined with the history of the broader Indian subcontinent. The ancient history involves the Neolithic site of Mehrgarh and the Bronze Age Indus Valley Civilization. Though least projected due to a variety of reasons–the real problem is in the implementation of cohesive policies to attract tourists. A number of archeological and tourism sites with rich history makes Pakistan a singular state to be the favorite destination of tourists across the world where history is blended with civilization. To cuddle with optimism the pendulum might swing back anytime soon as once Pakistan was also part of the “hippie trail,” from Turkey to India, which young Westerners traveled. The Russian and American’s clash of interests in the regions in the decade of 80s resulted in exodus of tourists in the days to come but in perspective of the history of Pakistan it has been the land of the liberals. Presently, Pakistan is heading as a forward looking nation and it is witnessing 3rd consecutive term of civilian rule estranging itself from the things like religious extremism, military rule and corruption, there is still an important part of the country’s history that radiated a more confident, progressive, tolerant and joyous Pakistan.

It is an established fact that tourism plays an important role in the economy and it is a major source of revenue for most countries around the world. Countries have invested in tourist attraction sites and infrastructure within their countries to attract both domestic and international tourists. International tourists account for more than 50% of revenue earned from tourism in most countries. An expense incurred by inbound international visitors on goods and services and sometimes passenger items received in the country visited is referred to as international tourism receipt. These payments may include airfare, accommodation fees, shopping fee, money spent on food, and entrance fee paid for public facilities. International tourism contributes around $1340 billion to the world economy. The biggest share of that ends up in the pockets of Europe, however Asia and the Pacific, which welcomes 24 per cent of the total number of foreign visitors–Pakistan duly deserves a lion sharein it. As per available statistics the US made more income from tourism than any other country, a whopping $ 299 billion during last year. In second place, Spain (a smaller country than Pakistan on all accounts including tourist spots) earned around $96 billion.  In south-east Asia, Thailand was the most popular country for foreign tourists with 35 million visitors in 2017. It is a healthy indicator that a popular American business magazine ‘Forbes’ has included Pakistan to the top ten ‘coolest places’ where tourists must go in the new year of 2019. The similar version has also been reported by Khaleej Times. The British Backpacker Society described Pakistan as “one of the friendliest countries on earth, with mountain scenery that is beyond anyone’s wildest imagination”. According to Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC), around 1.7 million foreigners visited Pakistan in 2017 showing a remarkable increase in the ratio of tourists’ influx while domestic travelersjumped by 30 per cent. The country has now been officially termed ‘safe for travel’ by the Portuguese government and British Airways also resumed operation in the region after more than 10 years. 

Pakistan is situated in a region that has been home to the world’s three major religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism — for centuries. Regretfully, the government and authorities have so far failed to exploit the huge potential that the religious tourism offers which can accrue not only economic benefits but also help project the country’s soft and peaceful image. In fact, the benefits of religious tourism are certainly something that Pakistan can profit from. The federal and provincial governments should devise cohesive and coordinated strategies to boost tourism in line with how Saudi Arabia has done through the millions of pilgrims visiting its territory every year and earning billions of dollars from this sector. However, it is appreciable that Pakistan’s religious tourism has shown an uphill trend in the last three years because of the improvement in law and order and change in the government’s attitude. Although Pakistan has a great potential for religious tourism, yet it only need is [improved] law and order, and proper marketing of the stuff that it has to offer. Pakistan army has launched a series of onslaughts on militants, particularly in northwestern tribal region along Afghan border since 2014. Khyber Pakhtunkhawa province — once a child poster for terrorism and suicide bombings — is home to 70 percent of the sites in the country sacred to Sikhs and Buddhists. Whereas, Punjab, the country’s most populous province, and southern Sindh province also host several sites linked to the three religions. Once known as the heart of the Gandhara civilization, Takhtbai or Takht-i-Bhai ( throne of origins) — a small scenic town located some 160 kilometers (99 miles) from capital Islamabad — is the most visited site by the Buddhists, who flock to see the ancient monastery dated back to the 1st century, The region in northern Afghanistan and Pakistan had been the hub of Gandhara civilization for centuries. Large to medium-sized stupas of Gautam Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, and other heritage sites in northern Bamyan province of Afghanistan to Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt, and from northern Gilgit-Baltistan region to tourist valley of Swat are reminiscent of the defunct civilization in this region. Located some 27 kilometers (17 miles) from Islamabad, Taxila — also known as Tukshla in olden times — is another holy site, which includes a Mesolithic cave and the archaeological remains of several Buddhist monasteries.

Pakistan can cause a significant increase in number of tourists from Japan, China, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong and even from Myanmar. Interestingly, there is no decline in visitors from Buddhist-dominated countries despite the ongoing violence in Myanmar. Buddhist heritage sites are fully protected and Pakistani considers them as their own. Punjab is home to five most important pilgrimage sites for Sikhs including Nankana Saheb, and Gurdwara (monastery) Punja sahib in Hasan Abdal town, where the handprint of Guru Nanak is believed to be imprinted on a boulder at the monastery. Katas Raj temple in northeastern Chakwal district and Sadhu Bela temple in southern Sukkur district are the two most visited religious sites by Hindus from across the world.

According to a report by World Economic Forum, the direct contribution of tourism industry in Pakistan in year 2015 was Rs328 million constituting to 2.8 percent of the total GDP. The government is making continuous efforts to promote tourism in Pakistan and they predict that by the year 2025 tourism will contribute Rs1 trillion to Pakistan’s economy. For this, Pakistan needs to revamp its tourism industry by improving infrastructure and ensuring state-of-the-art facilities to the foreign visitors with public private partnerships and foreign investments. Some tourist corporations have started working and encouraged the government to attract tourists to Pakistan by working on several projects in the tourist market: building and maintaining the road and air networks. The maturation of human and natural resources can also contribute to the development of the flabby industry. It has been estimated that the public and private sectors have gradually earned less income from the tourism market causing less investment and innovation within the industry. This has led to several historical sites and landmarks to depreciate over time and the lack of international standards have left many sites in poor states. It also needs to adopt sustainable measures for promotion of tourism. Sustainable tourism has three interconnected aspects: environmental, socio-cultural, and economic. It implies permanence, so sustainable tourism includes optimum use of resources, including biological diversity; minimization of ecological, cultural and social impacts; and maximization of benefits for conservation and local communities. It also refers to the management structures that are needed to achieve this. Producing skilled work force in hospitality management and tourism will be a viable option to achieve the objectives of sustainable tourism in the country.

Development of tourism industry in Pakistan can bring a great change to the economic status of the country. That’s because tourists have a wide range of budgets and tastes, and a wide variety of resorts and hotels can be developed to cater for them. For example, some people prefer simple vacations, while others want more specialized holidays, quieter locations, family-oriented holidays, or niche market-targeted destination hotels. So in contrast to that, we can develop a lot of different hotels or restaurants to meet everyone’s demands. Now all of that cannot work out if people outside Pakistan don’t know about it. Advertising campaigns need to attract tourist by developing holiday packages especially designed to explore the greater regions of the country. In this era of technological advancement we can advertise anything pretty easily on the internet on a very high level and it can reach out to everyone in this way.

Serving as a front line state in war against terrorism with above 50 thousand sacrifices the global community should acknowledge the exemplary contribution of Pakistan and atleast support to its reviving economy by means of tourism as a weak economy cannot afford to reconstruct and preserve its richest tourism and archeological heritage.

The writer Masroor Ahmed is an International Relations’ Scholar and is currently working as Deputy Director in Prime Minister’s Office, Pakistan. His Area of specialization is Regional Conflicts and Security.