A unified tourism strategy that caters to the demands of the domestic market, as well as the needs of international tourists, coupled with simplified visa procedures, will soon put Pakistan on the global tourism map, experts said.
Speaking during a webinar on Wednesday, Syed Zulfiqar Bukhari, special assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan, described Pakistan’s tourism sector as ‘something unique’, which has ‘really kicked off’ over the past two years. He noted that when Prime Minister Imran Khan took office, tourism was one of the sectors that was at the top of his agenda for the nation.
The biggest obstacle when it came to the development and growth of the sector, he said, is that it is ‘very devolved’ and that many of the country’s provinces are used to operating in silos.
“Tourism is the biggest revenue generator, as well as the biggest employment generator in the country, with the shortest period of time,” he said. “On average, when we look at several other nations, the contribution of the tourism sector to their GDP stands at around 10 per cent; in Pakistan, it currently stands at less than three per cent. Our goal is to raise this average to 10 per cent, which is going to involve significant investment, but will result in billions of dollars in wealth creation and circulation.”
Towards this end, the country recently welcomed the creation of a National Tourism Board that united all the provinces in a key strategic move. This entity is responsible for creating unified policy plans that are already bearing strong results.
“Pakistan tourism is primarily a summer-based activity, but, our winter tourism activity superseded our summer numbers,” Bukhari said. “Tourism activity has exploded, primarily driven by our domestic sector. Due to the Covid-19 restrictions, many people were not able to travel internationally and instead decided to explore more of their own country.”
“We have never had a problem with demand,” he added. “We are a population of over 220 million, with around 70 per cent under the age of 35-years. We have a diaspora of around 10 million individuals, of which four million are born and raised overseas and who come to Pakistan once or twice a year. This is a key demographic that we want to nurture moving forward.”
Looking ahead, he highlighted several plans that will strengthen the both the country’s tourism and hospitality sectors. “We have recently finished with our 10-year tourism policy as well as a 5-year tourism action plan. We have created an online portal for ‘Brand Pakistan’ which will be officially launched by the end of May this year. We want people to see Pakistan for what it is, and we want people to recognise Pakistan for all its natural beauty. We want them to look at Pakistan as an exotic destination.”
Another key challenge, he highlighted, revolves around the lack of infrastructure, particularly in natural landscapes that require careful planning before they can welcome large volumes of tourists. “We have to open these areas in zones to avoid encroachment and mushroom growth, while ensuring fair competition, organic growth, and preservation of the natural ecosystem and wildlife. We have also invested in a highly skilled tech team that will come up with a solution that will streamline the online process for visas.”
Following Bukhari’s presentation, Ahmed Amjad Ali, consul-general of Pakistan, described the country as a ‘treasure trove of wonders’ that offers something for every type of traveller, ranging from religious tourism to adventure tourism, gastronomy, and historical & cultural tourism.
“It is not enough for a traveller to go to the country and spend the majority of their time in one of the big cities; you need to actually take the time to go out and explore Pakistan,” he said. “You will find historical sites that date back to the 15th century, rugged mountain landscapes and some of the tallest mountains in the world, vast expanses of breathtaking desert, lush forest landscapes, and the amazing hospitality of its people that is second to none.”
Ali also highlighted how the country is improving on its hospitality infrastructure with several partnerships with international hospitality brands. “Recently, we had the Hilton brand announce a major property in Islamabad. We also have several other hotel chains such as Sheraton and the Intercontinental are also looking to expand their presence. Hopefully, by next year, we will have added several more 3-star, 4-star, and 5-star hotels to our hospitality portfolio. Though the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted us, we also think of it as an opportunity for several of our major sectors.”