Pakistan is beautiful, world travellers deserve to see it

The South Asian country has once been a top spot for backpackers, hippies, and general travellers.

By Waqar Mustafa

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Published: Sun 16 Jun 2019, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Sun 16 Jun 2019, 10:22 PM

Epic! This is how British backpacker Michael Worrall described his experience of visiting Pakistan at an event in Karachi last month. "The glorious mountain scenery that is beyond imagination, impressive historic monuments and the country's hospitality; it was an amazing adventure and an experience I would never forget - including watching the sun rise in Hunza Valley," said Worrall, founder of the British Backpacker Society that ranked Pakistan as the world's number one adventure travel destination last year.
The South Asian country has once been a top spot for backpackers, hippies, and general travellers. However, it has remained isolated from international tourism for nearly three decades, especially post 9/11, because of lack of a tourism policy, insecurity, inadequate infrastructure, and boarding and lodging, poor connectivity through air and road, and unskilled tour operators and workers in the industry. Financial crisis has shaken the world's sixth-largest nation and it has to look for budgetary support that could help it overcome a ballooning balance of payments crisis. On the other hand, the share of travel and tourism in the overall economy has remained stagnant at around 2.8 per cent, way below its potential. Tourism sector can create a lot many jobs and generate revenue for the country.
Security in Pakistan has improved and official tourism statistics show bookings for Pakistan tours have increased significantly in the past two or three years. In 2015, the country welcomed 563,000 overseas arrivals. That number has steadily grown: 965,000 in 2016, 1.6 million in 2017, and 1.9 million last year. Leave out expats of Pakistani origin visiting their families, the figure is promising, yet insufficient, for tourism. Several countries have relaxed their advice on travel to Pakistan. Earlier this month, British Airways restarted its flights from Heathrow to Islamabad, after about a decade. It had stopped its service to the country post-9/11.
Prime Minister Imran Khan is keen to promote the country's tourism potential. To prop up the sector, Pakistan has offered visa on arrival to visitors from 50 countries - including the United Arab Emirates - and electronic visas to 175 nationalities. Sikh tourists carrying Canadian and British passports will also be allowed to avail of this facility. International Air Transport Association (IATA) approved tour operators will now be allowed to bring groups of tourists to Pakistan. British and US citizens of Indian origin will also be able to get visas on arrival. Most restrictions on movement within the country have been abolished. According to AFP, the push has resulted in an influx of foreign travel bloggers extolling the virtues of Pakistan's mountains and beaches, as well as its rich heritage and history, from ancient Indus civilisations to Buddhist shrines and Islamic monuments. The government has also opened its rest houses for people, a move to offer accomodation at reasonable prices.
The United Nations' new tourism agenda 2030 spells out tourism's links to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of ending poverty and hunger, achieving good health and well-being, and quality education and gender equality, access to clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, reducing inequality and advancing sustainable cities and communities.
Pakistan's potential for growth in tourism is almost limitless. The country needs a national tourism policy which integrates all the provinces. It should promote public-private partnership for a competitive tourism market. It should offer tax concessions on import of hotel machinery, land on lease, rationalised taxes to develop hotels and formal institutes to train and develop human resource for tourism services. It should regulate, standardise and monitor the quality of these boarding and lodging facilities so that hotels maintain their quality of services. Tourism is a labour-intensive industry which can lead to cross-sectional and regional employment generation directly contributing to national economy and government revenue, currency inflow and infrastructure investment.
A beautiful country showcasing spectacular Himalayan mountains, a vast coastline, ancient civilisations, remarkable Mughal and imperial architecture, and religious tourism sites revered by followers of Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism and Buddhism, and warm hospitality of its people, Pakistan should tap into the limitless potential of tourism sector to wean itself from borrowing from outside. It should not miss its chance of emerging as a global tourism player and an economic power providing its people peace and progress.
Waqar Mustafa is a multimedia journalist and commentator based in Lahore, Pakistan

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