By M Ismail Khan
Come and see for yourselves — Pakistan is not what the ruthless western media may have led you to believe –from the virgin beaches in Gwadar to the ‘throne room of mountain gods’ in the Karakorum — it is a country of unmatched natural splendors. It houses 140 million hospitable and ‘largely’ easy going people belonging to an array of cultural background some of them as old as 9000 years. Pakistan is not all about venomous mullahs, suicide bombers and oppressed women –that is a message the country needs to project as loud and clear as possible. Tourism can serve as an important means of public diplomacy to convey such messages. However, one needs to keep in mind that festivals and cultural events do help tourism but tourism cannot only be defined as a set of cultural events. Tourism essentially is a business activity, which requires enabling policies, market forces, professional expertise and requisite infrastructure; it is not a polio vaccine which can be promoted through awareness campaigns alone.
For years now, we have been trying to put together a ‘Visit Pakistan Year’ but somehow had to postpone the celebrations as other and more urgent tasks e.g. Kargil conflict, change in government, and war against terror etc, came in the way. This time around, our dynamic tourism minister seems determined to celebrate 2007 as ‘Visit Pakistan Year’. Nonetheless, it would be interesting to see how she would manage to maintain the momentum once the election dates are fixed. Meanwhile, the ministry has announced a wholesale 50 per cent discount in royalty fee on mountain peaks rising above 6500 meters (e.g. regular fee for 8611 meters high K2 is US$12000), it has also rolled out an ambitious plan of around 52 events all over the country, and has developed a prioritised marketing plan targeting specific tourist generating countries. These are definitely some positive moves, yet at the end of the day, a successful tourism campaign would be judged on the basis of the number of arrivals and foreign exchange earned in a fiscal year, and not by the number of events organised.
Tourism, the world’s largest industry after oil and automobiles, has always struggled to find its rightful place in the eyes of Pakistan’s economic planners. In many countries, including the ones in Asia, tourism has already emerged as a major employer, taxpayer and foreign exchange earner. Pakistan on the other hand, despite having excellent potential in terms of both cultural and natural heritage, has miserably failed to capitalise on this economic opportunity. The poor and negative image of the country as a tourist destination has been a major constraint. Here again, political chaos prevailing in the region especially Afghanistan and Pakistan-India tensions over Kashmir, and the ill-conceived radicalisation of state institutions and symbols may have left a longer then life shadow over the real picture of the Pakistani society.
But ‘image’ is not the only problem Pakistan’s tourism faces or else the domestic tourism should have been booming. The basic problem has been the lack of imagination and commitment on part of the policy makers to make best use of country’s tourism resources. Tourism as an economic activity is an interplay of state level facilitation and market based operation. Over the years, a lot of noise has been made about having a futuristic tourism policy, and about according the tourism sector full industry status, but nothing has actually came out of those pronouncements.
The best way to celebrate ‘Visit Pakistan Year’, therefore, is to introduce major reforms in the tourism sector. Tourism should be provided full industry status by encouraging banks and financial institutions to favorably invest in hotel, transport, human resource development and other areas of the sector. There is need to rewrite the terms of reference of the federal tourism departments created in 1970s. Everywhere, tourism has become a highly competitive business, if Pakistan desires to do well it has to (re) restructure the tourism departments on professional lines so that their services could cater to the high expectations of modern day’s choosy tourists.
There is tremendous scope for cultural, pilgrimage, and sports tourism in the country, but the most precious segment for the country is the high budget mountaineers and trekkers. Those are the people who invest a lot of time, effort and money in pursuit of their desired tourism products. They are faithful and committed customers that usually many of them won’t even care about a war going on in the neighbouring valley. Yet the kind of bureaucratic red tapes these poor mountaineers have to endure in visiting Pakistan is simply preposterous. Each one of them has to be cleared by a number of departments, some of them hardly capable to spell their own names, forget about those of incoming tourists. In a country, where billions of rupees worth smuggling takes place in the name of Afghan transit-trade etc it is clearly an anti-tourism behavior to penalize the prospective tourists who wishes to bring in necessary equipments for their expeditions.
There is also no point in asking tourist to report in Islamabad on their way up and back from the mountains for the sake of ‘briefing and debriefing’ when the same can be accomplished through the officials already posted at their launching basis like, Gilgit, Skardu and Chitral. Imagine the frustration of incoming expedition members when they are forced to break their journey in Islamabad in the smoldering heat of summer often having to miss out on their schedule flights disturbing the entire travel plan just to pacify the ego of some clueless officials.
Another convenient way to multiply foreign exchange earnings through tourism is to allow direct chartered flights access to Skardu, which already has Pakistan’s longest airstrip capable of handling all kind of aircrafts. Giglit and Chitral airports need further up-gradation for long haul flights. Private sector airlines should be encouraged to operate flights to the mountain areas. Situated next to Northern Areas is Ladakh region in the Indian administered Kashmir – opening of the traditional road link between the two regions can stimulate a major tourism boom in the whole region – whereby Tibet’s recently inaugurated high altitude train system has already become a major tourist puller in China.
Lack of intra and inter-department coordination and devolution of marketing responsibilities at the provincial levels are other snags. Embassies and PIA need activation and capacity. Foreign service academy should provide for tourism courses as well. It has to be considered that tourism products that Sindh or Punjab would like to market are different to the one presented by NWFP and the Northern Areas or Balochistan, therefore, it is vital that a true tourism niche of different units is reflected in the marketing strategies. This will enable different regions to deal with the issue of extreme seasonality, and would help tune their services and infrastructures accordingly.
Note: The writer is from Gilgit-Baltistan, presently based in Islamabad. He has an additional qualification in tourism from the Schloss Klessheim in Salzburg, Austria. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org