The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has labeled the 2020 World Tourism Day as ‘Tourism for Rural Development’, which underpins the importance of integrating local communities into the tourism value chain.
Meanwhile, much has been written about the aftermaths of COVID-19 on the global travel and tourism industry over the past six months. The sector has doubtlessly suffered losses both in terms of jobs and travel receipts. The UNWTO reported a 65 percent drop in the international tourist arrivals between January and June 2020. The situation is improving gradually and around 53 percent of global locations have eased travel restrictions with most observing strict adherence to the standard operating procedures (SOPs) for travelers and industry players.
Pakistan tourism developments jeopardized by the pandemic
Between September 2019 and now, Pakistan’s travel and tourism industry has seen several developments despite the overall setback received due to the pandemic which led to the closure of most tourist sites for three months.
Estimates put direct and indirect job losses at around two million, most of which are concentrated in the country’s informal sector. To the government’s credit, immediate measures were launched to help the sector reopen for business, such as the issuance of ‘Strategy to Mitigate COVID-19’s Impact on Tourism’ and SOPs for the airlines, hotels, restaurants, transporters, travel agents and tour operators by the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC).
These were customized and widely publicized by the provinces including Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). The KP province conducted training sessions to educate around 730 participants from the public and private sectors about the SOPs to ensure everyone’s health safety.
Through their own development budget and the World Bank-supported destination development projects (KP Integrated Tourism Development and Punjab Tourism for Economic Growth Projects), Punjab and KP have continued working to improve the tourist infrastructure and visitor facilities.
Lahore Museum (credit: World Bank picture collection)
They have compiled a colorful calendar of events for visitors’ information. To introduce alternate tourist spots, Punjab is promoting lesser-known sites, such as Soon Valley and its lakes. It is rehabilitating link roads for heritage sites, illuminating historical buildings for night-time tourism, and strengthening the product offering of its well-endowed museums.
KP’s main activities include upgrading of roads which lead to remote picturesque sites, installing tourist signboards, procuring waste collection and road/snow clearing equipment, removing encroachments from the lakeside, and establishing five tourist emergency rescue centers. Awareness and preservation of Gandhara sites with mammoth archaeological and religious significance is a priority of both provinces.
Maaheen Lake, KP province (Picture credit: Govt of KP)
Another positive is the coordination between the center and provinces to improve branding and overhaul the policy framework to incentivize the private sector. Resultantly, a few European commercial airlines seem interested in seeking access to Pakistani skies and one is hoping to see the international chains of hotels, following suit.
All stakeholders must come together for an effective solution
With so much going on, all stakeholders must shoulder additional responsibility and work on the respective ethos to help the country transform itself into a competitive tourist destination. Ranking 121 out of 140 countries on the International Tourism Competitiveness Index is quite contrary to Pakistan’s unusual landscape, pristine waters, heritage assets, delectable cuisine, and snow-clad mountains. The domestic tourists (which are the main segment of travelers), local communities, and public and private sectors will have to, at minimum, adopt and practice the following key principles without wavering:
- Travel Responsibly: The narrative of tourism development is fast evolving to embrace and practice the idea of responsibility. The earlier mentioned priority actions of the national and provincial authorities are now well into the implementation stage. However, the mindset of visitors must change to ensure that their footfall doesn’t leave the sites damaged or polluted. They need to plan ahead, book in advance and stop littering to minimize the burden on local authorities and to protect themselves, the environment, and the local communities from various hazards. Without this realization, even the combined efforts of the public and private sectors and sizeable capital investment will fail to contribute to a safe and pleasant traveling experience.
- Use Technology: The digital platforms have made it possible to (i) regulate tourist numbers at sites experiencing over-tourism, (ii) offer virtual tours of locations, galleries, and museums situated across the globe, (iii) strengthen service delivery of the local authorities in waste collection and tourist safety, and (iv) better plan and manage trips. The use of apps including trip planners and home-stay platforms is instrumental in capturing the growing segment of young tourists.
- Strive for Standards and Longevity: An enjoyable traveling experience is a combination of tangible and intangible features. These mainly comprise seamless road and telecommunication connectivity, aesthetically designed on-site tourist facilities, respect for wildlife and heritage assets, attractive tourism product offering, and hospitality services meet prescribed standards of hygiene and comfort. There are no short cuts and no compromises on the quality if a country wants to use tourism as an engine of job creation and revenue generation while ensuring economic gains for the local communities. The creation of tourism assets (roads, public toilets, national parks, entertainment hubs, and more) has to factor in seasonality, climate friendliness, durability, and resources for ensuring continuous operability and maintenance.
Signboards being installed in Mardan (KP). Picture credit: Govt of KP
Pakistan has embarked on a long yet exciting journey of becoming a renowned global tourism brand. It has yet to fully explore new sub-sectors including the blue economy which could also unleash several benefits of coastal tourism. The local tourists are returning to the accessible sites and the sector will recover from the pandemic’s impact eventually. This is an opportunity for all to think big and play their part to help the industry realize its optimal potential.
Kiran Afzal is a Senior Private Sector Specialist with the World Bank Group. She is working on private sector development interventions including destination development, job creation, value chain competitiveness, and matching grants for SMEs.The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.