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Analyzing the potential of tourism in Pakistan

Irrespective of Northern Pakistan’s hidden treasures and our tourism potential, our state and society have not harvested the bounty optimally. Some basic impediments needing immediate attention are identified as approach/entry and infrastructure, state’s policy level apathy/neglect, and cultural barriers.

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After battling years of terrorism and instability, Pakistan is now seeing an influx of tourists.  In the year 2016, the number of international tourists began to improve with growing dissemination by social media influencers and travel websites of stories about Pakistan’s hospitality, breathtaking scenery, food, and culture. These social media influences then formed the narrative about the country’s tourist potential. But the question is behind the glaring lens of the camera, what is the actual situation of tourism in Pakistan. As of now, Pakistan’s tourism industry is relying heavily on the country’s culture and landscapes.

The tourists are particularly attracted by Pakistan’s unique hospitality, food, and sites in the Northern region. The adventurous types looking for their next adventure are likely to opt for Pakistan. British Backpacker’s society declared Pakistan as the “world’s third-highest potential adventure destination” for 2020. The US luxury travel Magazine Conde Nast Traveler declared Pakistan as “adventure traveler’s must-visit country”. Pakistan being noticed by international traveler magazines and tour operators is no doubt an excellent development, but on the ground, quite a lot of work needs to be done.

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How social media has helped Pakistan tourism?

The ascend of social media influencers has also played a crucial role in introducing the unique culture of Pakistan to global audiences. For the last fifteen years, Pakistan has remained closed off to foreign tourists due to instability. Since the improvement of the security situation, the arrival of foreign tourists has improved. But Pakistan needs to look beyond the narrative generated by the social media influencers. Besides culture and scenery, a country’s infrastructure and tourism services are crucial in promoting growth. According to the Travel and Tourism Competitive Index (TTCI) 2019 Report, Pakistan ranks 121 out of 140 countries.

The TTCI considers a number of factors in order to evaluate a country’s tourism industry. These factors include Business Environment, Safety and Security, Health and Hygiene, Human Resource and Labor Market, Tourism Services Infrastructure, Transport Infrastructure, among numerous other factors. Though improved from the past years, Pakistanis still ranked amongst the worst-performing countries. Infrastructure perhaps is the most critical factor in this regard. The tragedy in Murree points towards the issues of infrastructure, governance, and enforcement of policies.

Murree has been a popular tourist spot for domestic tourists even during the wave of terrorism in Pakistan. The lack of management shown by the local administration in early January this year and the resultant loss of lives shows that infrastructure building, regulation of the hospitality sector, management by local authorities and tour operators as well as capacity building and tourist-friendly policies are critical for Pakistan if it desires to improve the tourism sector of the country. Now Pakistan needs two things with regards to tourism infrastructure, first improve the quality of existing infrastructure and second development of new infrastructure to attract more tourists.

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Training of staff and local tour operators is also crucial

The lack of both these aspects could be extremely off-putting to tourists. In one rare instance of scorn for Pakistani tourism, a Youtube video featured two foreign tourists entering Hyderabad after spending time in Karachi. In the video, the first things which struck me as astonishing were the images of trash on the road and the refusal of a number of hotels from entertaining the two tourists. In the end, it turned out that only one hotel in Hyderabad was actually allowed to host foreigners.

The staff of the majority of hotels, with their lack of ability to communicate in English about this rule, appeared unwelcoming to the tourists, who seemed shocked, particularly after the robust hospitality of Karachi city.  With the influx of tourists and lack of necessary infrastructure in many regions of Pakistan, such stories could become frequent. There are certain policies connected to the tourism industry, including the monitoring of eateries and ensuring hygiene.

Regulation and monitoring of hotels and restaurants to prevent exploitation of tourists are critical to ensure good word of mouth from the visitors. Waste management is also important as scenes of litter on streets are quite repellent to foreign tourists and present an extremely bad picture of Pakistanis in general. The security situation of the country also needs to be constantly monitored. In case a foreign tourist gets endangered because of instability or terrorism-related incident, Pakistan’s tourism sector could lose it all.

A number of government actions are welcome steps, such as easing the visa regime.  Visa aspirants no longer require the non-objection certificate previously required. Citizens from fifty countries can avail of visa on arrival facility while visitors from a hundred and seventy countries can acquire electronic visas.  In terms of scenery, Gilgit Baltistan is the most beautiful region of Pakistan. The operationalization of Skardu International Airport for foreign flights means that tourists will no longer have to take the long route and hassle of first coming to Islamabad and then reaching the Gilgit Baltistan region.

Ancient archeological places such as Mohenjo Daro and Harrapa of Indus Valley Civilization and Takht Bhai and Pushkalavati of Gandhara Civilization are in Pakistan. These sites can be pitched to the lovers of archeological tourism. Pakistan is becoming a haven for archeological tourism with newly discovered sites in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Last year in December, over two thousand years old Apsidal Temple of the Buddhist period had been discovered in Swat valley, making it even older than Buddhist Temples in Taxila. In the Khyber district of tribal areas, more than a hundred archeological sites, including prehistoric cravings, have been discovered.

Read more: PM promotes Swat’s Buddhist tourism potential

This month the Archeology and Museum Department of KPK made a discovery of over two thousand years old Buddhist stupa and some four hundred monuments from a single location in the Swabi district. These sites in KPK can be used for both archeological as well as religious tourism.  These Buddhist sites could hold massive importance for residents of South East Asia. Besides Buddhist religious sites, Pakistan is also home to a number of Sikh religious sites, including Kartarpur Corridor, as well as numerous other gurdwaras in Hasan Abdal and Nankana Sahib.

These sites are extremely revered among the followers of the Sikh religion. Over three hundred Hindu Temples in Pakistan, including the Katasraj Temple, which according to Hindu Mythology, existed since the time of Mahabharata, could attract followers of the Hindu religion around the globe.  Pakistan is also a haven for mountaineers as the country hosts Hindukush, Himalayas, and Karakorum ranges.

Pakistani government needs to invest in local tourist agencies and tour operators

Pakistani local tourists largely lack access to foreign tourist agencies hence impeding an opportunity for growth and capacity building of the local tourism industry. The government needs to create a favorable environment for the private sector in the tourism and hospitality industry. Government can build communication infrastructures, improve governance and develop policies. However, there are limits to the government’s actions. The private sector is the actual driver of improving any industry, including tourism.

Despite the lack of substantive investments in the tourism industry, Pakistan as a tourist destination is taking off. However, the lack of some critical considerations on the government’s part raises concerns about the future of the tourism industry. For instance, if an unexpectedly large number of tourists flocks to a spot or a natural disaster occurs in tourism intensive areas, do the local administrations have the capacity to respond to such situations. Furthermore, in the case of peak seasons, is there a mechanism to ensure that tourism and hospitality industries are not preying on tourists by overcharging and compromising on quality.

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After the show of incompetence by the district administration in Murree and exploitative attitudes of the hospitality sector the obvious answer is no. Branding and marketing of a country’s tourist potential is just one aspect, actually developing crucial infrastructure and enforcement of policies is actually the key to sustained tourism. Lack of enforcement and corruption could very well derail Pakistan’s newfound desire for becoming a tourist hotspot.

 

 

The writer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan. He can be reached at op-ed@hafeezkhan.com. The views expressed by the writers do not necessarily represent Global Village Space’s editorial policy