Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” wrote famous American writer Mark Twain in his 1869 travel book, The Innocents Abroad.
Pakistan was a prominent tourist destination in the days of overland journey connecting Pakistan with its Asian neighbors in the 1960-70s. The “hippie trail” brought thousands of travelers from Western Europe and America to Pakistan, trailing through Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, India and Nepal. Western tourists, traveling as cheaply as possible, and interacting freely with people, were a common sight in most of the cities of Pakistan, including Quetta, Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar. Thanks to Pakistan’s natural landscape, high value tourists, generously paying for the luxuries of trekking to high altitude mountains in the present Gilgit-Baltistan, contributed to precious foreign exchange.
Photo Courtesy: Ehtisham Ahmed, Asma Hussain, Maqsood Akhtar and Pete Rojwongsuriya.
A parallel stream of rich international tourists, staying in modern hotels, enjoying the pleasures of finest food, drinks, music, theatre and cinema, benefited from the services and potentials of Pakistan’s burgeoning tourism industry. With a sizable presence of foreign tourist, travelers, and residents in Pakistan, a cosmopolitan urban culture, absorbing influences from the aesthetic centers of the modern world began to take root in Pakistani cities. Pakistan’s nascent tourism department, an adjunct section of Pakistan Railways since 1949, rose to become Tourism Bureau in the 60s and Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) in 70s, and living up to the challenges of meeting the international standards of tourism and hospitality management.
In the first two decades, the physical infrastructure of the department grew in size and offices of tourism department were established in Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Murree, Peshawar, Abbottabad, Saidu Sharif and Gilgit. An institute of Hotel and Tourism Management was established in Karachi in 1967 and National Institute of Public Administration (presently National Institute of Management) conducted courses for the training of tourism officers in the government. A Department of Tourism Services (DTS) was established in 1967, which continues to be responsible for the standards and certification of education and professional practice in the various tiers of tourism industry.
A generation of tourist officers, tour operators, hotel managers, and airline staff were trained in the fields of tourism and hospitality management. A chain of hotels, restaurants and information centers were built in the leading centers of tourist attractions in Pakistan. With meager resources, the tourism department produced tourist maps, guides and brochures in English to attract and guide the foreign tourists to visit the prominent cultural heritage sites and guide them to the available tourist packages for enjoying the scenic natural landscape of Pakistan. The details of hundreds of modern hotels, some parts of international business, and spread in more than ten cities in Pakistan, were given in the tourist maps, sold at petrol pumps and book shops all over Pakistan (Figure 1).
By the time a basic infrastructure of human and physical resources was put in place for Pakistan to emerge as the heritage destinations of the world, the political upheavals in the country owing to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Islamic revolution in Iran put a tragic end to tourism in the region. For the next three decades, Pakistan was embroiled in ethnic strife, sectarian fights and armed insurgencies. The country’s descent into political chaos served a death blow to foreign tourism and eroded the tourism infrastructure painstakingly put together by the founding generations of the country.
Though the country was a tourism hotspot in the 1970s, recent decades have spawned plenty of fears about safe travels to Pakistan, owing to political instability and terrorist attacks. Browsing through the travel advisory of major western countries, from where the high value tourists are drawn, including the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom (UK) and United States of America (USA), the real gravity of the challenge facing Pakistan’s transition from an alleged hotbed of terrorism to the harbinger of peace and tourism becomes clear. Consider, for instance, the travel advisory of USA for August 2018. It places Pakistan in the category of “High Risk Areas” and advises its citizens to “reconsider travel to Pakistan due to terrorism”. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, where Pakistan’s World Heritage sites are located is a no go area for the American travelers in Pakistan. “Do not travel to KP province, which includes the former FATA. Active terrorist and insurgent groups routinely conduct attacks against civilians, NGOs, government offices, and security forces”. The list of don’ts is longer than the do’s.
International travel advisories by countries regulating their citizen’s travels to Pakistan are showing signs of change, as recently the Portuguese government has issued a new travel advisory for its citizens, which declares Pakistan safe for travel and business, while France has also relaxed its advisory on travel to Pakistan. British Airways is the first Western airline to announce its plans for resuming flight operations to Pakistan after a 10-year suspension, with improved law and order situation in the country. These are indications of the world accepting the promise of a peaceful Pakistan.
Figure 1. Tourist Map of Pakistan, 1962
The present government has also relaxed the stringent visa policy and decided to provide the e-visa facility to travelers from 175 countries and visa on arrival to travelers from 50 countries. Tour operators that are approved by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) will now be allowed to bring groups of tourists to Pakistan. It is expected that the steps being undertaken by the government will substantially increase the tourism contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Reversing the Fortunes
Pakistan stands on the 124th position out of 136 countries on Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index as per the Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2017-18, compiled by World Economic Forum. While being ahead of only Bangladesh in South Asia, Pakistan ranks in the bottom 15 countries on the index along with the countries of the sub-Saharan Africa region.
• 134th at human resource labor market
• 133rd at safety and security
• 133rd at environmental sustainability
• 126th at ICT readiness
• 125th at tourist service infrastructure
• 122nd at government prioritization of travel and tourism
• 120th at natural resources
• 119th at conduciveness for business activity
• 114th at international openness
• 101st at health and hygiene
However, there are a few places where Pakistan is doing better.
• 29th at price competitiveness
• 59th at cultural resources
• 59th at business travel
• 80th at ground and port infrastructure
To catch up with the stolen decades in the annals of tourism industry, the low priority assigned to tourism as a department of the government has to radically transform. Pakistan’s first formal National Tourism Policy was announced as late as 1990. A Tourism Master Plan was developed nearly two decades ago in the year 2000, with the technical assistance of World Tourism Organization, which was eventually scrapped due to lack of attention by the government. In 2010, the Tourism Ministry made an even more ambitious attempt at yet another National Tourism Policy, which comprehensively identified the constraints in the growth of tourism industry, and worked out solutions of problems to boost the sector. While the federal planners of tourism industry were finalizing the implementation plans, the legislative subject of tourism was devolved to the provinces and the Federal Ministry of Tourism was abolished with the passing of Eighteenth Constitutional Amendment in 2011.
There is an immense potential for the tourism sector to grow in the provinces, but not all the provinces are prepared and equipped to take advantage of the devolved responsibilities. Punjab, which had established its Tourism Development Corporation Punjab as early as 1987, is well placed to promote tourism in the province, compared with the Sindh Tourism Development Corporation. However, all the provincial departments are financially handicapped to act more ambitiously and the Federal Department of Tourism Services and PTDC are equally cash strapped. It is important to develop district level master plans for the promotion of tourism in the provinces, which are based on field documentation and anthropological research. Each district government should develop an inventory of sites and maintain a roster of activities to promote all forms of tourism, from sports tourism, adventure tourism, religious tourism and heritage tourism, while maintaining the standards of preservation of heritage sites and commitment for eco-friendly and sustainable tourism.
Pakistan’s tourism industry suffers from lack of leadership at the national level. The Federal Government should play its leadership role at the national and international levels, with active coordination and feedback from the provinces. There should be a national level department of tourism, comparable to what other countries in the neighborhood – such as Iran, India, Turkey and Sri Lanka, which have successfully managed their tourism sector – have established in their respective countries. Pakistan Tourism Board (PTB), a statutory body with representation from all provincial departments, private sector trade bodies, and relevant ministries should be established. The PTB should be given the mandate for interdepartmental coordination, with Home Department, Foreign Office, Trade and Commerce, Civil Aviation, Roads and Transport and Pakistan Railways. It should also be responsible for quality standards, and grant professional certifications for the hotels, restaurants and other service providers in tourism sector.
Tourism has to be established as an industry with tax benefits. An enabling regulatory framework for private sector investments should be envisaged, where the government should not act as a competitor but as facilitator. The security clearances of tourists and grant of fast track NOCs and permits for travel to various parts of Pakistan should be arranged. Pakistan suffers from an image problem which can be overcome through market-based branding strategy for attracting foreign tourists in the country. The generation which was equipped in the science of tourism and hospitality management has passed on, without any successors to carry on the legacy and the institutional memories. Skill-based training in tourism and hospitality management for the youth are need of the hour. There is a dearth of reliable figures on the tourism sector. There is a lack of research to identify visitors’ exports or consumer trends in domestic tourism to support policy making and branding of tourism. A range of experts are needed to diversify the products of tourism and develop marketing strategies of tapping into range of tourist packages, from religious tourism to food tourism. Pakistan’s national carrier Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) and the private sector airlines can play a major role in attracting foreign tourists by offering tour discounts and other incentives to its international customers.
Potential for Heritage Economics
Pakistan’s branding as a peace loving country, endowed with rich natural and cultural heritage, which welcomes tourists, domestic as well as foreign, has to go hand in hand with planning and management of natural and cultural heritage, as the strategic assets, without which there will be no tourism in the country. The poor management of natural and cultural heritage sites is not only leading to the irreparable loss of culture and ecology, but also destroying the very sources of heritage economics that are integral to the success of Pakistan.
Given the population pressure on the land, what has physically survived over thousands of years may not last for another 100 years, if left unprotected. Consider the example of Pakistan’s most urbanized province, Punjab, with its 110 million inhabitants is endowed with highest value heritage sites placed on the World Heritage List. However, the rampant urbanization is threatening the very sources of revenue generation, which if properly managed can generate international tourism, comparable to Taj Mahal of India.
Ironically, on the one hand, the natural and cultural heritage is increasingly under threat from the large scale development of housing, transportation and industrial infrastructure in the cities in Punjab. On the other, the city development authorities and city district governments responsible for development of cities, have no designated role in the protection or regeneration of urban heritage. The heritage sites are generally left out of the urban planning process which leads to development projects causing fragmentation and deterioration of historic urban heritage. The disastrous impact of mega transport project of Lahore Orange Line Train on the status of World Heritage Sites in Lahore, namely Shalimar Gardens and Lahore Fort, which attracts huge foreign as well as domestic tourism, is a worst case scenario, which could have been averted through heritage centered planning and development of Lahore.
The urban heritage is protected and conserved by the Archaeology Department, the Auqaf Department and the Evacuee Trust Board which works independently of one another with little inter-organization coordination or shared understanding. Each department has its own sphere of parallel work and do not undertake any joint planning and development initiatives. Lahore Walled City Development Authority stands as an exception to the general trends and has played a fundamental role in the conservation and protection of the city’s heritage, leading to organized cultural tourism of Lahore walled city.
Punjab’s building and town planning laws and regulations such as Punjab Development of City Act 2014 holds no special brief on historic urban properties, which if properly conserved can generate substantial urban heritage tourism. The heritage specific legislations like the National Antiquities Act (Amendment) 2012, Punjab Special Premises Ordinance 1985, or Punjab Heritage Foundation Act 2005, intended to protect the urban heritage stand in complete isolation and often in contradiction with the broader context of development and growth of cities.
Although the potential value of heritage assets to promote tourism is understood, heritage economics as a means to integrate and maximize the potential of multi-sector and industrial domains remains untapped. By identifying, conserving and managing historic areas within their broader urban context, the process of urban conservation can be made part of the planning and development of a contemporary city. It is vital for policymakers and other stakeholders to acknowledge the important role that cultural heritage can play in generating tourism and sustainable economic development.
A recent example of heritage tourism in the modern city of Islamabad is the proposed Heritage Hiking Trail of Margalla Hills, which aims to take visitors on a day’s excursion, away from the modern city, to the ancient capital of the Ghandhara, by trekking on a historic road and a hiking path at the Margalla Hills. The Heritage Trail starts by first traveling on the historically layered tracks of the old Grand Trunk Road of the Sher Shah Suri and the mighty Mughals of India. An hour long foot journey on the historic path, over the Margalla Hills top, leads to the neighborhood of Ghaznavi period mosque and Giri Buddhist monasteries at Taxila, the part of World Heritage Sites. The Heritage Hiking Trail, connecting the two capitals, is intended to promote heritage based tourism in the modern city of Islamabad, which serves as home to diplomatic missions of more than seventy countries of the world. An attempt in conserving and projecting Islamabad’s multi-cultural past will go a long way in establishing and projecting Pakistan’s soft image worldwide.
Tourism as a Soft Power of Cultural Diplomacy
Pakistan pursues its foreign policy objectives through political, economic, and humanitarian means. The role of Pakistan’s armed forces in UN Peace Mission is substantial. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through its foreign missions plays a pivotal role in the cultivation of friendly relations between nations, despite the political differences. However, the use of tourism as a ‘soft power’ has never been deliberated upon by Pakistan’s government. Instead of projecting hard power, Pakistan should project soft power, to soften the national image abroad, as part of branding strategy for international tourism. Tourism can be an important component of soft power – the ability to influence the preferences of international actors and affect foreign policy outcomes through the attractiveness of one’s culture and values.
Cultural diplomacy branches off from public diplomacy to make use of the power houses of soft power — theatre, art, music, literature — in order to achieve understanding between the people of different countries, as opposed to the bureaucratic exchanges between the officials of respective governments. If Pakistani artists are sent abroad and artists from other nations are invited to come and visit Pakistan, in order for them to see the country, beyond the news headlines, to be able to practice the arts together with the local artists, to visit universities, colleges and schools and speak to students and members of civil society, the international image of Pakistan will be changed for the better.
Behind the diplomatic successes of countries like Britain and India, earning friendly relations worldwide, there are dedicated institutions of cultural diplomacy such as British Council (established in 1935), and Indian Center for Cultural Relations (established in 1950) which are the focal point of all inter-cultural and educational exchange for the respective nations. Other countries of the world, such as America, Iran, and Germany have their respective organizations such as American Center, Goethe Institute and Iran Culture Center, working to promote soft image of their countries in Pakistan and worldwide.
There is an untapped potential to project our values and our strengths through an active diplomatic program of cultural activity, for which a statutory body, to be called Pakistan Center, should be established, through private and public partnership, affiliated with the Foreign Office. A dedicated institution of the state, envisioning and planning international cultural exchanges and events, and armed with the branch centers in all the major cities of the world, created with the support of overseas Pakistanis, can a go long way in multiplying Pakistan’s influence overseas and increasing the likelihood of success in its foreign policy objectives.
Far from the state propaganda aimed at spreading national ideologies or proselytizing about the greatness of one’s own nation or culture, the art of cultural diplomacy lies in respecting the foreign cultures. It is the learning process and artistic collaboration that builds the bridges between the nations that will outlast political upheaval and the changing of governments. The benefits of such a program of cultural diplomacy for Pakistan would be huge. Trust-building, which is what Pakistan sorely needs right now, would be natural and organic.
U.S.-born travel blogger Alex Reynolds, is one of many young foreign tourists, who defied the terror-stricken image of Pakistan, and voluntarily promoted the soft image of country through her blog lostwithpurpose.com, which was cited by major western news channels like the BBC and CNN. Traveling with a friend, she spent two six-week stints in 2016 and 2017 traveling across the country despite her friends’ and families’ concerns. Her initial reactions to journeying through Pakistan are very similar to what every foreign traveler to Pakistan would perceive. “For the entirety of my time in Pakistan, my parents messaged me in a panic, begging me to leave the country as soon as possible”. Reynolds was taken aback by the generosity of Pakistani people. “My notions of hospitality were completely redefined by what I experienced in Pakistan,” she says. “People invited me to stay in their homes and slept on the floor so I could sleep in their bed. Hosts arranged everything from day trips to rides from city to city, and took days off from work to show me around”. “I’d never seen anything like it, and still haven’t experienced hospitality on that level anywhere else in the world.”
A Thailand-based world renowned traveler and food blogger, Mark Wiens, recently traveled to Pakistan for a 16-day trip and shared his adventures via his video-log on YouTube in November 2018. Titled, “What is it like to travel in Pakistan”, the video-log has earned more than two hundred and fifty thousand views in a short span of three months, eliciting comments from people from all over the world, reaffirming their positive experience of traveling to Pakistan. There are plenty more examples of foreign and domestic tourists sharing their independent views and news about the extraordinary potentials of tourism in Pakistan. From the international consumer trends to the political conditions of the country, the overall environment is conducive to the growth and development of Pakistan as the number one tourist destination of the world.
The improved security situation, backed by a government-led push to promote tourism is leading to an increase in the number of foreign visitors in Pakistan. In 2017, an estimated 1.7 million foreigners visited Pakistan, which was 2,00,000 more than the previous year. Bookings are up 100% this year for the Wild Frontiers, a tour operator based in the UK and U.S. that have been running trips to Pakistan for 20 years. For the founder Jonny Bealby, it is not difficult to see why the country is appealing to travelers once again. “For the adventurous traveler it offers so much. More epic accessible landscavpes than you will find anywhere else, meaning landscapes you drive to rather than trek for days to”. He wrote, “Hunza, for example, you can sit on the rooftop at your hotel having breakfast and you’ve got seven 7,000-meter peaks all around you, which is pretty incredible”. Bealby also points to the country’s interesting cultural allures, both in terms of architecture and people. “The cuisine is of course great and the hotel accommodation is actually a lot better than most people think,” he adds. “Tie all those things together and you’ve got the perfect adventure travel destination”.
As a way forward, here are some of the suggestions for developing tourism as an industry:
• Foreign Office should work with their international counterparts for the revision of adverse International Travel Advisories for Pakistan.
• The Public Diplomacy division of Foreign Office should develop vibrant programs for cultural diplomacy to promote inbound tourism as a soft power.
• The tourism departments require radical restructuring under the leadership of National Tourism Board.
• A Pakistan Center for cultural diplomacy should be established for tourism branding of Pakistan.
• Overlapping jurisdictions between Federal and Provincials departments of tourism and culture should be clarified through appropriate legislations.
• The provincial governments should undertake a comprehensive survey and documentation of all heritage sites in the provinces.
• The district governments should undertake documentation and publication of natural and cultural heritage sites in their districts for public knowledge.
• The district governments should develop district master plans for the promotion of tourism at the district level.
• The provincial government should plan and develop tourism trails in their provinces.
• The KP provincial government should plan and develop former FATA as the model heritage destination for domestic and international tourism, signifying the shift from terrorism to tourism in the region.
• The government should develop tourist information centers at all the leading tourist destinations in the country.
• Tourism as an industry should be developed by giving tax exemptions.
• An enabling regulatory framework for private sector investments should be envisaged, where the government should not act as a competitor but as a facilitator.
• The security clearance of tourists and grant of fast track NOCs and permits for travel to various parts of Pakistan should be arranged.
• A market-based branding strategy for attracting foreign tourists should be developed.
• The training of tour guides is imperative for an informed tourism, in addition to skill-based trainings in tourism and hospitality management which should be offered in Technical and Vocational Training Institutes in the provinces.
• Karakoram International University Gilgit-Baltistan and University of Balochistan should start departments of Tourism and Hospitality Management.
• The universities should initiate research and documentation of the tourism sector in Pakistan to identify visitors’ exports or consumer trends in domestic tourism to support policymaking and branding of tourism.
• The tourism departments should diversify the products of tourism and develop marketing strategies of tapping into range of tourist packages, for medical tourism, sports tourism, rural tourism, spiritual tourism, eco-tourism, and food tourism in the provinces.
• Pakistan’s national carrier Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) and the private sector airlines can play a major role in attracting foreign tourists by offering tour discounts and other incentives to its international customers.
• Pakistan’s Foreign Office should actively seek the religious tourists from abroad, which includes world religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.
• The tourism departments should develop print and electronic information on the key tourist destinations in multiple foreign languages, such as English and Chinese.
• Digital mobile phone applications and tourism websites should be developed for online booking of hotels, transportation and other services by the foreign and domestic tourists.
• Pakistan’s hospitality industry should be promoted by developing hotels, motels, youth hostels and guest houses at the key tourist spots.
• To improve the physical access to heritage sites for tourists, adequate road, rail and air networks must be built.
• Onsite facilities such as lavatories and tuck shops should be adequately maintained.
The writer is an anthropologist, former Director of National College of Arts, Rawalpindi campus, currently working for the Center for Culture and Development (C2D), Islamabad & Vice President of the Council of Social Sciences.