Promoting Tourism In Pakistan Requires Looking Beyond The Northern Areas
Pakistan’s geographical location serves as a double-edged sword. On one hand, it puts the country into hot waters because of vicious neighbors and thus into a battleground for regional and world powers with competing geo-political interests in the region. On the other hand, it makes Pakistan culturally, ethically and religiously diverse having influence of Central Asians and western countries owing to their numerous invasions. Arabs have had their significant influence over this region. More importantly, being part of Indus Valley civilization makes Pakistan a unique place that offers a lot to tourists from across the board.
Pakistan’s vast geographical terrain ranges from lavish coastal line including massive Indus Delta and desserts in south to snow-covered mountains with largest glaciers out of polar region in north. Cities such as Lahore are cultural hubs where history is imprinted over buildings, foods and life-styles. Besides, there is no dearth of World Heritage enlisted sites: Moen-Jo- Daro, Kot-Diji and Taxila just to name a few. In terms of religious tourism, Pakistan abodes holy sites of all regional religions. Katas Raj Temple and Kartarpur Gurdwara are sacred places for Hindus and Sikhs respectively. Budhists have holy places all over northern Pakistan especially in Taxila. There are also famous Sufi shrines that attract a large number of devotees from whole Pakistan and abroad.
Owing to this, Pakistan was ranked ‘The Best Holiday Destination for 2020’ and was also declared highest potential adventure destination by various international organizations. Despite having such a huge potential, it is ironic that Pakistan lags far behind India and Nepal in terms of foreign tourists and share of tourism to GDP. While regional average of tourism ratio in GDP is more than 3.5%, Pakistan’s ratio is still less than 2.5%.
This shows that there are some flaws in tourism promotional strategies and policies, mainly two. First, policy-makers fail to cater to the needs of foreign tourists. Second, obsession with traditional tourist sites- specifically northern Pakistan- has left a large part of the country unexplored and neglected.
It has been a folly on the part of the policy-makers who believe that international tourists come to see only natural beauty of the country. The matter of the fact is that apart from a small number of professional adventurists, majority wants a holistic holiday plan. Such a majority go out on holidays to relax, entertain and enjoy themselves. However, Pakistan fails to provide them any such facilities including accessibility to liquor, dancing bars, casinos and cinemas. Moreover, there are hardly any international standard recreational parks, Paragliding, skiing and other adventure sports opportunities.
Further, obsession with northern Pakistan has not only narrowed opportunities and options of tourism in Pakistan for both local and foreign tourists but has also caused devastation to tourism industry. While coastal tourism is the backbone of Maldives’ economy, the same is neglected in Pakistan which has more than 1100-KM long coast-line that constitutes numerous beaches. But due to lack of infrastructure and safe accommodation, Baluchistan’s coasts largely remain unexplored. Dubai has become a tourist paradise over the years despite the fact that the country is much less diverse in terms of geography, history and culture as compared to Pakistan. However, from dessert safari only, Dubai earns billions of dollars annually in contrast to Pakistan where no such proposal ever came to light.
Religious and cultural tourism sector has also remained neglected. Holy sites of native religions have been discarded and no serious initiative has ever been taken to restore them in their original status. This has discouraged religious tourists from visiting their sacred places because temples are in bad shape and without much security and accommodation facilities for pilgrims. Contrary to this, conservative countries such as Saudi Arabia have protected its pre-Islamic heritage. Saudi Arabia, in its 2030 vision, plans to open up further and build a huge new city where liquor and other glamour activities would be available for foreigners. All of this is being done to diversify economy and to lessen dependence on oil. Needless to talk about Egypt- a Muslim-majority country- which is internationally identified through its Pharaoh and pyramids bringing in revenues worth billions of dollars.
Therefore, it is high time to learn from these countries and make tourism the backbone of economy to eradicate acute poverty. For that, there is a dire need of diversifying tourism in Pakistan rather than focusing on the north only. Besides, cultural and religious festivals need to be arranged and promoted by giving v-loggers easy access through relaxation in visa policies and issuance of NOCs on the same footing as given during Dubai Festival. Kalash’s annual cultural festival provides unique opportunity in this regard. Lastly, tourism should be eco-friendly; besides giving due consideration to the needs and sentiments of native people, local culture should be preserved and promoted. Out-of-box thinking is imperative in revitalizing and utilizing true potential of Pakistan.
Kashif Ali is a geologist-turned civil servant. He holds a degree in Geology from University of Sindh. He has interest in global politics and current affairs and writes extensively on diverse subjects ranging from culture and education to religious extremism and public administration. [email protected]