Imagine planning out a holiday to an exotic country. A country rich in culture and history. You want to just relax for a week, see the sun set and walk on the beach, try out different kinds of food, take a ride amidst some mesmerising mountain ranges. You are lured easily by the fantastic pictures of a city you have seen over the internet. All you need to do is grab your passport, ticket and bag and you are good to go. All of this one should be able to do from the comfort of your home these days if it’s a visit to a tourist-friendly country. The above hypothetical country can easily be Pakistan. But is it?
Pakistan attracted just around two million foreign tourists in 2017. In the same duration Turkey had a record season with 37 million foreign tourists. It is futile to compare ourselves with well-established tourist destinations like Spain (75m) and Italy (53m). But what about our neighbours? China had 60 million tourists and India for the first time in its history hit the 10 million mark in 2017.
Tourism has become an important source of revenue generation. Check this fact for a moment, the tourism industry was responsible for 10.2% of the global GDP in 2017. In Turkey, tourism accounted for 20% of its total GDP. According to India’s tourism minister, New Delhi earned $27 billion for the year of 2017 from the arrival of foreign tourists alone. According to the World Tourism and Travel Council, direct contribution of tourism to Pakistan was only 2.7% of the GDP which is abysmal by any standards. So what are we missing?
To start with, terrorism and the law and order situation are the biggest impediments to the arrival of foreign tourists. The tourism industry works on brand and repute. You won’t like to visit a country where you know you and your family will not be safe. But it is easy to just blame the lofty law and order situation for the abysmal performance of tourism industry in Pakistan. The rate of foreign tourists was not encouraging even before the 9/11 incident. The problem is multi-pronged. The government and the private sector go hand in hand in the tourism industry. The government is responsible for a broader policy that lures foreign tourists to the country while the private sector pitches in to cater to tourists on the ground.
Most of the tourism-related activities in Pakistan is happening on account of local tourism. There has been a steady increase in local tourism with 38.3 million local tourists reported by the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation in the last year. But the tourism industry has even failed to cope with the influx of these local tourists. Consider going to Murree on a public holiday to enjoy the snow. You will definitely be stuck somewhere on your way. If by chance you are able to reach the hill station, it will be an uphill task to get yourself a reasonable room for the night with basic amenities such as warm water, good food and heating.
The aforesaid is just one of the many aspects of our ailing tourism industry. Another impediment is to get a visa to visit Pakistan. It may sound odd but Pakistan is one of the hardest countries to get to with respect to visa processes and checks. The extra checks were created in the wake of the security situation in the country, but this had an adverse effect on tourism for the past decade. Recently, the government has tried to fix this problem by announcing visa-free entry to 30 tourist-friendly countries. This may help increase the confidence of foreign tourists. In today’s world most of the foreign tourists travel through e-visa.
Next in line is branding. Each country brands itself extensively to the world. For India, it is ‘Incredible India’ and the Taj Mahal as its face, and for Malaysia, it is ‘Malaysia Truly Asia’. Why can’t we have our beautiful face shown to the world? After all we have the world’s most amazing mountains, one of the world’s most beautiful capitals, one of the world’s most beautiful mosques, the birth place of oldest civilisations and one of the warmest and hospitable people of the world. It is a shame that countries with which we have such amazing relations such as Turkey and China know more about our neighbouring country thanks to their entertainment industry. The Pakistani entertainment industry needs to seriously think global and help build the soft image of Pakistan.
Finally, for every tourist-friendly country means of transportation is important, starting from direct air routes, good airports and stopovers to intercity as well as intra-city connectivity. One cannot imagine life in London without its ‘underground’ or life in Istanbul without its tram and metro. They have become part and parcel of the tourism sector. Large numbers of people cannot be transported on taxis and buses alone. We need newer modes of mass transit. The Orange Line Train in Lahore is a step in the right direction. It is hoped that other cities will also try to bring innovation to ease massive congestion on the roads.
The tourism industry is expected to grow worldwide in the coming years with developing countries taking the lead in both aspects of where the tourists come from and where they are going to. Currently Pakistan is ranked at 124, according to the World Economic Forum Tourism and Competitive Ranking. We need to up our game. The ‘Amazing Pakistan’ and ‘Emerging Pakistan’ campaigns are currently running all over the world but it needs to be supplemented through various ‘offers’, ‘deals’ and ‘promotions’ that we ourselves love to take when we go out searching for places to visit. Pakistan must not lose the opportunity to make its mark on global tourism. We have already lost precious time. Let us not wait anymore and open our doors to show the world really how ‘Amazing Pakistan’ is.
The Express Tribune