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Ecotourism – New Buzz word in Pakistan

Ecotourism

Hadi Pirzada |

As Pakistan formulates its strategy to develop the Tourism & Hospitality industry, to become a critical economic driver, policymakers are slowly coming to realize that they need to incorporate the phenomenon of ecotourism and sustainability into their plans. The Prime Minister, one of its strongest proponents, has given a loud and clear message to his team to focus on ecotourism and sustainability.

Ecotourism is a popular buzz word, and everyone knows it is required, but it means different things to different people. The fact that people are talking about the concept is a significant step, but most entrepreneurs and businesses are stuck on building hotels, Apps, or business models without a real understanding of what ecotourism encompasses. The herd mentality prevalent means if one person opens a Chai Khanna, everyone starts opening a Chai Khanna, and if a Chinese restaurant opens in town, ten other individuals want to open a similar kind, just because the first one that opened was profitable in a short period.

The same seems to be the case with talk on ecotourism. In my recent interactions across Pakistan with stakeholders, from the government to the hospitality industry, everyone is speaking about the sustainability of the tourism sector, without any understanding of what it means. The tourism potential in Pakistan and especially the Northern areas is no hidden fact. The landscape, the unique cultural heritage, and the hospitable people of the country create a competitive advantage in attracting tourists.

Green tourism can be applied to all types of tourism that contributes to viable development, whether it is leisure expedition, business, or adventure travel.

So, the challenge is not how to identify the tourism potential, but to consider how tourism can help conserve this unique natural and cultural heritage and at the same time improve the quality of life for people. To understand how ecotourism may help to achieve this potential, we need to understand what do we mean by sustainable tourism, and what connects sustainable tourism and ecotourism.

According to the World Commission on the Environment and Development, sustainable development ‘is the economic growth that is socially and environmentally sustainable, based on policies that both sustain and expand the environmental resource base.’ Experts define this as a ‘link between tourism, the environment, and sustainability within a framework of community-based development.’ Under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals 2030; three relate to sustainable development under the tourism sector. SDG 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all; SDG 12: Sustainable consumption and production and SDG 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

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Therefore, the social and natural environments are the primary resources for both tourism and development; our goal should be to preserve and expand these resources. Green tourism can be applied to all types of tourism that contributes to viable development, whether it is leisure expedition, business, or adventure travel.

Pakistan’s new government has emphasized developing the country’s tourism potential; in light of this, a parallel focus is now needed to ensure the sustainability of the country’s natural landscape and cultural heritage across its provinces. The newly created tourism taskforce under the chair of Zulfiqar Bukhari, and other stakeholders, both private and public, should devise a strategy to answer questions about how to achieve this sustainability, create a national plan and in light of the 18th Amendment that devolved tourism, the federal government needs to ensure it brings all provinces to buy into its strategy.

The tourism potential in Pakistan and especially the Northern areas is no hidden fact. The landscape, the unique cultural heritage, and the hospitable people of the country create a competitive advantage in attracting tourists.

Furthermore, clear steps need to be outlined as benchmarks for one season, one year or five years or as in the case of sustainability described for the next generation of Pakistanis. Like the term sustainable development, ecotourism has been defined in many ways and has the potential to be misunderstood. However, in good practice, the tourism association of Canada explains it well:

“Ecotourism is a segment of sustainable tourism that offers experiences that enable visitors to discover natural areas while preserving their integrity, and to understand, through interpretation and education, the natural and cultural sense of place. It fosters respect towards the environment, reflects sustainable business practices, creates socio-economic benefits for communities/regions, and recognizes and respects local and indigenous cultures, traditions and values.” The focus of ecotourism should be on low impact activities, environment, and cultural appreciation and sensitivity.

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Education is an essential element and relies heavily on the responsible use of natural resources in the area. There are examples of Murree, Naran and many other places where mushroom growth of hotels without a framework and policy guidelines in terms of facilities, waste management, and construction has immensely damaged the natural resource base of these areas. Private sector tour and hotel operators focus on selling and short-term financial gains often without considering the capacity of each destination and cultural sensitivity of the locals.

For Pakistan, a quick and ready definition of ecotourism is to do that which is:

  • Economically viable
  • Culturally appropriate
  • Nature-based
  • Low impact
  • Responsible use
  • Education
  • Environmental protection
  • Community involvement

Conservation requires a commitment on the part of all stakeholders in the industry; between tour operators, tourism bodies, donor & environmental agencies, hotels and restaurant operators and most importantly the local communities and visiting tourists for the conservation of natural and cultural resources.

Read more: Pakistan’s Hospitality & Tourism: A long but rewarding journey

The government is vocal about creating new eco-friendly zones and promoting ecotourism, but the first step is to start with preserving the existing destinations like Kalash and Sharan valley and organize them as model stations for ecotourism. Leveraging government and NGO skills in capacity building to train and guide locally owned and managed sustainable businesses, help locals start their own B&B’s, enhance their skills, using donor grants and private sector to help them use renewable resources such solar panels to be energy efficient.

a national plan and in light of the 18th Amendment that devolved tourism, the federal government needs to ensure it brings all provinces to buy into its strategy.

Help communities implement greywater recycling methods and teach them to sell organically grown produce. The Kalash valley offers huge possibilities of remote villages becoming eco-friendly destinations; from selling their local produce to creating different learning experiences for tourists. However, there is an urgent need to build the capacity of the local workforce in remote tourist destinations, so they get the skills to serve and protect their communities and yet create an ecotourism experience for their visitors.

There is an immediate need of a federal body that sets and implements guidelines for tour, hotel/motel and food & beverage operators to ensure sustainable practice to operate in terms of safety, sanitation, health, environment, qualified workforce, building and construction & classification of facilities i.e. one star, five-star, holiday homes, etc. If the tourism board lacks this skill-set at present, then it can be outsourced to another independent association that helps to build that framework, under which tour and hotel operators need to operate to ensure an eco-friendly and safe operation to preserve cultural heritage and sensitivity.

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Clear guidelines need to be imparted to ensure respect for the people and their cultural sensitivities, interesting anecdote many travellers to the Kalash valley share, is notices in the area saying no tableegh is allowed. This was done in response to the attempts to pressurize locals to convert to Islam.  Careful engagement and listening to the local people involved in the tourism industry; guesthouse owners, shop keepers, transport drivers, and owners is one starting point.

The government is vocal about creating new eco-friendly zones and promoting ecotourism, but the first step is to start with preserving the existing destinations like Kalash and Sharan valley and organize them as model stations for ecotourism.

At the same time – these areas need basic infrastructure to fully utilize their tourist potential. Currently reaching these areas is an adventure in itself – with often patchy unpaved roads that require no less than heavily polluting four-wheel vehicles to reach anywhere.

Along with educating the local workforce in our remote areas, a parallel effort is needed to teach, in particular, domestic travellers when they visit these areas to preserve natural resources. Often, after a festival or a polo game in the Northern regions, the entire village is destroyed with litter damaging the area. Under a collaborative effort of the government, media, and the private sector, involving tour guides and hotel operators, travellers need educating. Perhaps an awareness marketing campaign, through the media, could focus on the importance of preserving our country’s natural resources.

Read more: Is Tourism in Pakistan Dangerous?

All developed countries like US, Canada, Spain, Germany have used media resources to educate travellers. Recently with the digital social media, storytellers, bloggers have done work to create awareness on responsible tourism. China, Ecuador, Brazil, Nepal, Sri Lanka are few countries where education on responsible tourism has been on the rise.

Other Challenges in ecotourism in remote Pakistan

  • Underdeveloped attraction and service bases– not enough established activities and attractions for visitors once they decide to visit the region. There are many examples from North America to Europe and Asia, where national parks, marine sites, rivers, and mountains are used to create activities for tourists to attract in a destination.
  • Not enough services designed to meet specific visitor needs- such as lack of clean accommodation facilities, sanitation, transport, medical facility, and lack of information on local destination culture & activities.
  • Lack of a local workforce trained in necessary hospitality industry skills- for example, primary service skills, communication, grooming, safety standards and most importantly the industry lacks the processes and standards required to service guests and tourists

The initiatives taken by the current government to promote and discuss ecotourism is commendable, but we have a long way to go to achieve its sustainable objectives. The task force on tourism should involve the local communities / local tour guides / local hotel associations in the planning phase and not when the strategy is already finalized. After all, we want to create, build, and foster tourism through those communities, therefore their voice and concerns are essential.

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The following basic minimum steps that our tourism bodies and the private sector should take, to devise a well-thought plan to promote the ecotourism in Pakistan.

  • Inventory of primary tourism attributes and assets, including culture and heritage, wildlife viewing, provincial parks, and adventure tourism locations. It should be provinces which should have their strategy/laws to protect their assets and then develop and market it to domestic or international tourists. Like creating museums, parks, old heritage buildings, etc.
  • Evaluation of existing infrastructure and gap analysis, including current access opportunities and charter flight/chopper opportunities to preserve the landscape.
  • Assess the level of community interest in ecotourism and how it can be developed.
  • Develop a checklist of requirements for a viable ecotourism industry for each of the selected areas
  • Agreement on community tourism standards (i.e., environmental, social, and cultural considerations or concerns).
  • Formation of a body or engage a private entity to create and monitor the quality, policies, and standards of tourism assets.

The development of a sustainable ecotourism industry requires a planned approach that recognizes and addresses environmental and social impacts as part of its overall strategy for growth. Without an overarching strategy and plan for tourism development opportunities, and the economy built upon them, ecotourism will remain a mere buzz word for articles and social media posts. Only a thoughtful approach to ecotourism, involving local communities will add sustainability, dimension, and depth to the economy.

Hadi Pirzada is Executive Director at the Lakeshore Hospitality Group, has worked in Switzerland, Canada & Dubai. A graduate of Cesar Ritz Hotel School, Luzern, Switzerland and Brock University, Canada, he has worked in Global Sales & Marketing Operations with Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons, Marriott International, Starwood & Intercontinental Hotels and travelled extensively to tourist destinations as part of his responsibilities. Tweets @hadipirzada.

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