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Atif Khan: Trying to open KP to the world?

Provincial Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for Tourism discusses how his government intends to promote sustainable tourism in the province to increase jobs and bring in revenue.

Atif Khan

Atif Khan is the Senior Minister and Provincial Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for Tourism, Culture, Sports, Archaeology and Youth Affairs. Previously he was a member of the Provincial Assembly of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa from May 2013 to May 2018 and served as Provincial Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for Elementary and Secondary Education from June 2013 to May 2018.

GVS: It is said that you personally chose the Ministry of Tourism, Culture, Sports, Archaeology and Youth Affairs – why was that?

Atif Khan: Personally, I believe there is nothing more interesting than tourism and I want to promote tourism as a source of revenue generation for the province; because the province has limited industries and economic activities.

Secondly, a large part of the population is unemployed, so the tourism industry should provide jobs to the youth of KPK. These are the two things I am focusing on and I believe, I will be able to achieve them.

GVS: Have you created a strategy for increasing tourism in KPK?

Atif Khan: We are moving in a structured and planned way – where we will bring in a gamut of activities and experiences for the tourists. We plan on having high impact activities such as adventure, cultural, and heritage events. We aim to provide cultural entertainment at the local level while creating local institutions and ensuring that these are sustainable activities.

Around 15-16 road infrastructures are required to access remote areas; 4 or 5 of which will be operational in coming months.

We are targeting development of up-to 20 valleys in the next five years as tourist destinations. For this, we are conducting detailed feasibility on sustainable and environmentally managed tourism. We will create experiential activities within those areas –water rafting, angling, and so on. We also intent to set up ski resorts.

Within the cultural realm, we will create a special heritage site and plan to create a ‘walking through history – heritage trail’; which will go from the Peshawar walled city all the way to the identified Buddhist sites. We are working with AKDN and SRSP on how to manage communities and at the same time using the experience in Gilgit-Baltistan to learn how to bring in high-end hotels.

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GVS: What will be the main focus of your ministry in this tenure? Is it going to be good hoteling, good infrastructure, or something else?

Atif Khan: I plan to limit the role of government in helping in fixing, and upgrading some of the basic infrastructures which include roads, electricity, certain buildings and security. As for the rest, our private sector needs to step in and take up responsibility. Using the existing tourism policy of KPK, that was created in 2015; we are in the final stages of setting up KPK tourism authority.

The authority will facilitate all stakeholders. Around 15-16 road infrastructures are required to access remote areas; 4 or 5 of which will be operational in the coming months. We are also trying to develop existing and new destinations for tourists to visit. The problem with Pakistan is that there are only a few prominent destinations; Murree, Nathia Gali, Kalam etc.

Right now, we are working with people from the media, overseas Pakistanis, foreign travelers; who love to travel around while making vlogs and writing blogs to boost tourism through their research. 

In the holidays season, these places are badly jammed with traffic; so to revert the tourist influx, we should give people more options to travel. My idea is that the government will procure the land, and there will be an open bidding with guidelines for the private sector. We will obviously be asking the private sector for their requirements and will facilitate them accordingly.

To attract foreigners to travel to Pakistan we are working on three things: adventure tourism, religious tourism, (which is abundant in our province like the Buddhist trail) and historical tourism. So, we will be focusing on all three aspects simultaneously. In the first two years we will be focusing more on domestic tourism, and then the overseas Pakistanis.

Atif Khan addressing a jalsa in Mardan

This will of course does not fall in the category of religious tourism, but the other two. After this, our focus would be to market our tourism to countries like Korea and China for religious tourism. For the Europeans, I believe Chitral has the potential to become a great tourist attraction.

Chitral’s language, culture, festival, and history is very different from the rest of Pakistan. We renovated the entire ‘goll gatli bazaar’ and are now establishing Walled City Authority for Peshawar just like Lahore did; it will work towards the restoration of historical landmarks of Peshawar such as the Qissa Khwani bazaar.

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GVS: The image of KP is one of, men in black shalwar kameez; carrying guns, and committing violence. Considering the security challenges of KPK, how realistic is imagining the province as a tourism highlight?

Atif Khan: This is true, but apart from the two instances in the recent elections the security situation in the province is very calm. The image building matters will take some time and it requires serious thinking on what to do on this. Right now, we are working with people from the media, overseas Pakistanis, foreign travellers; who love to travel around while making vlogs and writing blogs to boost tourism through their reach.

Also, there is a fine line of how images can be represented; the same Pathan men can be sold as historically strong, independent men, who have fought against invaders for centuries.

We are also talking with the Frontier Constabulary and we will be setting up joint tours of the Qilla Bala Hissar while inducting tourist guides; who will discuss the wars and battles over the generations that have been fought in the area. With the passage of time and the right kind of support from the media industry, I believe the image of KPK (and Pakistan at large) will improve.

GVS: The diaspora in these countries usually come to Pakistan when they’re visiting relatives in any major city, and then go back, how do you plan to engage them to travel? Have you thought about your target tourist?

Atif Khan: We will be working on both domestic tourism and overseas diaspora initially. We do not plan on targeting domestic or foreign tourism based on travel income; but at this stage, we will encourage all travellers, however, we will be categorizing places. Some Places will be categorized as valleys for high-end tourists and others for backpackers and one-day tourism.

5-star hotels are almost the same anywhere around the world and for tourists it is always quite thrilling to live the the locals, interact with them and learn more about the culture firsthand. 

On diaspora we want to change their thinking that they should just come and visit their family, often attend weddings and then go back. A lot of especially younger Pakistani origin diaspora do not even know about the incredible places that exist in the country; UNESCO world heritage sites, Fairy Meadows, Skardu, Hunza and other natural wonders and so on.

We want to make them aware of all these amazing tourist attractions that exist in Pakistan and KP; so they can make their visits more worth-while, by travelling around. So, if we are able to project the beauty of Pakistan, we can gain a significant amount of foreign exchange as well. As compared to the Europeans, it is much easier to attract these travellers who already have a certain bond to Pakistan.

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GVS: What are your ideas for branding tourism in KP – will domestic branding be enough?

Atif Khan: Domestic branding is definitely not enough – Pakistan has to be branded as a country too. For this purpose, Prime Minister Imran Khan has already created a task force that he is heading himself to work on promoting Pakistan as a tourist destination. The problem is that since the adoption of 18th amendment, tourism has been devolved;

so, while the provinces are making many independent efforts, Pakistan as a country has made no progress in terms of becoming a tourist destination for the foreigners. The federal government will be promoting brand Pakistan which has not been done in years. Provinces will promote themselves within the country and the federal government will do international branding of the country.

KPK intends to work through social, electronic and print media. PTI has a great deal of following due to social media, and so I do not underestimate the power of social media, which can now be used differently. Social media is also the cheapest way for us to promote the province, we plan to make documentaries, travel logs and so on to work on this project.

Travel blogs and vlogs will help us reach the right kind of audiences here, and abroad. We are already planning to have certain trips with Eva Zu Beck from Poland, to areas like Swat and Chitral. Then there is Taimoor Salahuddin (also known as Mooroo) who has quite a lot of following domestically.

GVS: Given the importance of infrastructure, road links, and flight connectivity – all of which are federal subjects – how can you work on tourism alone on the provincial level.

Atif Khan: We have three main places for tourism, one is Chitral, which has an airport of its own. Swat airport was closed down during the times of militancy, but I have requested this should be made operational once again. So, with the two airports, I think we can manage the tourist influx just fine.

Atif Khan speaking at a gathering organized by US-Aid in Islamabad

I have also spoken to Shah Mehmood Qureshi (Foreign Minister of Pakistan), and we plan to organize tourism expos in countries with a huge amount of Pakistanis diaspora such as U.S., U.K., and even Saudi Arabia. We will be doing on this in collaboration with the private sector, tour operators and Pakistan embassies abroad.

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GVS: Have you or other members had any discussions with Shah Mehmood Qureshi regarding the need for setting certain targets for Ambassadors – be it investment targets or tourism targets.

Atif Khan: In the last task force meeting, there were no representatives from the Foreign Office. So, I suggested to the Prime Minister that in each meeting we should have representatives from MOFA as well as Ministry of Interior to discuss visa relaxations for tourists visiting Pakistan.

GVS: How do you plan to spend the budget allocated for tourism? Which subject requires immediate attention?

Atif Khan: The budget which we are putting together will be presented finally in June 2019. But currently, we are in the process of hiring specialized tourism professionals; tourism marketing experts, digital marketing experts, legal experts etc. They will all get involved in this process – after which we will decide where to spend our budget.

GVS: As the senior minister for tourism, where do you see KPK in terms of job creation in the next 5 years?

Atif Khan: We are also working on an idea which is similar to the Airbnb culture in Europe. Because people of Chitral are very welcoming to the tourists. We are also planning to provide financial assistance to these residents if they agree to our initiative.

The thought behind this is, 5-star hotels are almost the same anywhere around the world and for tourists, it is always quite thrilling to live with the locals, interact with them and learn more about the culture firsthand. This method will also help to provide jobs and increase incomes for local communities. If we can have 1.7m tourists in Gilgit-Baltistan we can have a lot more in the entire KPK, once the tourism initiatives are implemented. This is a big focus for us to create these jobs.

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GVS: Any other multi-lateral entities you are working with?

Atif Khan: Yes, the World Bank has been very responsive. They are helping us with road construction, some tourism infrastructure, in hiring tourism experts, technical expertise and so on.

GVS: When do you expect that the measures your ministry is planning to take, will be solid enough for people to measure them in terms of revenue, tourist influx etc.

Atif Khan: The impact of these initiatives will start becoming more noticeable in the next 2 to 3 years. Some are low hanging fruits which we can work on immediately; but for Pakistan to become the tourist destination we want for it to become, it will require time and a lot of homework.

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