THE OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES OF TOURISM IN PAKISTAN

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Pakistan has traditionally been at the cross roads for different civilizations, which have traversed through the territory that is now part of the present day country. Pakistan comprises various and diverse geographical topographies including plateaus, hills, plains, mountains, deserts, and coastal areas. The legacy of different civilizations and presence of local cultures coupled with diverse geographies offer scenic and attractive prospects for domestic and international tourists.

In recent years, there has been a conspicuous change of behavior at the highest level of governance when it comes to the economization of Tourism. Governments, past and present, are driving the effort to change the perception of Pakistan at home and abroad by incentivizing tourism and expanding its scope, especially the role tourism plays in the domestic economy.

There is a serious realization that since Pakistan has been one of the most attractive destinations in tourism, its potential ought to be realized. Pakistan’s tourism sector flourished during its early decades from 1950s-1970s. However, the trajectory dipped over the years due to country’s struggle in improving the security environment as a result of post-1979 regional environment. Furthermore, the horrendous terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed global security landscape, which also adversely impacted Pakistan’s tourism sector. The department of tourism had to wait until 2004, when it became an exclusive ministry and after a short stint the department was devolved to provinces under the Eighteenth Constitutional Amendment in 2010. However, the present federal government is determined to revive Pakistan’s capability to attract international tourism by promoting coordination among different departments, including offering private sector with a lead role.

The intention to avail advantages from tourism to boost the economy to facilitate economic development and earn hard cash for the debt-ridden nation is a long process. Even at international forums, industry experts and people associated with it acknowledge the potential tourism has for Pakistan’s economy. The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) 2018 annual report penned that the total contribution of Travel & Tourism to Pakistan’s GDP was USD22,286.3mn, 7.4% of GDP in 2017, and is forecast to rise by 5.8% in 2018, and to rise by 5.4% to USD39,851.6mn, 7.4% of GDP in 2028.

The scope and potential of tourism in Pakistan holds optimistic prospects. The decision by the government to introduce a new visa regime aims to relax the process of acquiring a visa. The new visa regime will grant three-month e-visas to foreigners in 175 countries within a period of 7-10 working days. In the first phase of this regime, citizens of the United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Turkey and China will be granted e-visas within a brief period of 7-10 working days.

Under the new regime, business visas for five years will be issued within 24 hours. Moreover, the average visa fee for different visa categories has been reduced by 22 to 65 percent. In order to bring in international tourists to mesmerizing mountainous areas of Gilgit Baltistan (GB) and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), the federal government has removed the restriction of Non-Objection Certificate (NOC). Pakistan has also started engaging Western countries in order to revisit their travel advisory for Pakistan, since the security situation has significantly improved due to successful military and Intelligence-based operations against terrorist networks.

Keeping in mind the contribution of tourism to the economy so far, the progress this industry would make under Prime Minister Imran Khan’s vision to position Pakistan as ‘Asia’s Best Kept Secret’ is enormous only if the government seriously consider the challenges posited by the revival of the tourism industry in the country. Drawing from my personal experiences and reported facts, there are three fundamental challenges to the tourism industry: infrastructure, engagement with domestic tourists, and digitalization.

One of the major factors that the government has prioritized is the development of infrastructure and public services to different tourist attractions across Pakistan. Building up of infrastructure will allow government to promote and attract international and domestic tourists to new locations. Similarly, development of different municipal services such as waste management services, emergency and health services and setting up of tourist police departments across Pakistan will also enable further reinforcing Pakistan’s tourism credentials. It appears that these areas of improvement will soon be addressed as government has prioritized development of tourism sector.

Moreover, it is also worth mentioning that bilateral collaboration between China and Pakistan under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in form of China – Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has enabled Pakistan to expand network of road highways and power generation plants. These notable developments have allowed Pakistan to reduce inter-city travel distances and also to favorite tourist destinations.

The government had recently introduced many initiatives to attract foreign tourists to the country. It announced a new policy that eliminates the requirement of attaining NOC by foreigners to enable them to visit the country more frequently and with less bureaucratic stress. This step could serve as an excellent motivator for the tourists who are especially aversive to a country whose bureaucratic rules are too rigid to comply. In addition to that, Pakistan Tourism Summit was held in April 2019 to collaborate with travelers, bloggers, and tour operators across the world with a motive to promote tourism in Pakistan. All these steps are essential as they encourage foreigners to visit Pakistan. Sadly, not a single local blogger was invited to the summit, which speaks of an over-prioritization of foreign tourists over domestic ones.

Indeed, as mentioned above, the challenges require a continued pursuit, patience, and dedication as it is a national challenge requiring years to take ground. Problems of human development to digitalization are bound to arise as the industry takes its modern shape, and different approaches are put into practice. However, with continued clarity, funding, and strong planning, Pakistan’s tourism industry could serve as a significant revenue generation industry to the Pakistani economy while serving as an excellent vehicle for the projection of its soft image, domestically and internationally.  Coming up with comprehensive and novel solutions to promote diverse forms of tourism will soon enable Pakistan to convert its promising tourism potential into a reality.

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