Pakistan has everything a tourist could wish to see, believes Huma Khawar.
Often depicted in the Western media as a country of hard-line Islamic fundamentalists, terror training camps, subjugated women and cricket cheats, Pakistan could seem a hard sell to the potential tourist. We rarely hear of the country's fascinating diversity, its well-kept Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist shrines, the dazzlingly high mountains or the impressive sheer glaciers,” writes Antonia Windsor, a British tourist.
The article, focusing on the top five tourist sites in Pakistan, was published in the Guardian exactly one year after the October 2005 Kashmir earthquake in order to help the country’s tourism industry. The five sites included Taxila, Lahore, The Karakoram Highway, Karimabad and Lake Saiful Muluk.
Tourism is considered an increasingly expanding industry accounting for almost 10pc of the global GDP. All over the world, it is an important means of income generation, job creation, poverty reduction, foreign exchange earning and promotion of cross-cultural understanding.
In spite of being one of the top tourist destinations on World Heritage sites, Pakistan’s tourism potential remains under-utilised for which the law and order situation is considered to be one of the main impediments. Kashmir and the Gilgit-Baltistan have suffered badly in the past due to the non-conducive political environment. Following the Waziristan operation Swat experienced reduced tourists in the past couple of months.
In addition, the communication and hospitality infrastructure are in severe need of up-gradation. Bad roads, flight cancellation and delays, non-refundable restrictions on tickets, lack of connectivity to various locations, and deficient communication facilities are among the factors that discourage tourists. As for accommodation, there are many places where hotels are either non-existent or do not offer value-added service.
The government is the backbone of the entire tourism industry and should support the private players. “The government has not been proactive, particularly when it comes to giving incentives to other stakeholders including travel agencies and the hospitality industry,” says Arshad Mir, from a travel agency in Islamabad who believes that “the airlines as well as the Civil Aviation Authority have to give tax relief to encourage the private sector to support the industry.”
According to Mir Shahjahan Khetran, Managing Director, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC), mountaineering, trekking, travel to the Galliyat and Swat is picking up. Kalam, closed for many years, is now open and running to full occupancy.
Tourist traffic to Murree, the Galliyat, Ayubia, Kaghan and Swat valley has increased considerably during 2011 and 2012, while Pakistani tourists are now visiting new destinations like Gilgit, Hunza, Fairy Meadows, Rama Lake, Chitral, Kalash and Shandur valleys.
Sharing the upcoming activities designed to give the industry a long due boost and promote domestic tourism, he informs that the Swat Summer Festival will be held from June 20 to 23 with support from the law enforcing agencies. This will be followed by the popular Shandur Polo Festival from July 4 to 5 and then the Kalash Cultural Festival. “We are expecting 20pc increase in domestic tourism during the current season, despite negative projection by the international media,” he says.
Although technology does not seem to be a major influence at first glance, it plays a major part in the promotion of a place.
In the modern age, travel companies have to focus on Search Engine Optimisation like never before to improve their visibility. “Thanks to the internet, reading, researching about a place, flight and hotel bookings, maps, reviews, designing itinerary is done completely online by visitors prior to their travel”, comments Riffat Khalid, a student of hotel management.
Pakistan’s geographical location, featuring deserts, forests, mountains, and beaches, combined with its diversity of culture, i.e. a blend of various civilisations and their traditions and a wealth of archaeological sites and historical monuments, helps in selling niche areas of tourism. These can include culture tourism, food tourism, herbal tourism, eco tourism, wildlife tourism and adventure tourism.
Its rich cultural heritage and history, food, friendly people, architectural monuments, hospitality and services are positive strengths for the tourism sector in Pakistan, which keeps it ahead of many in the emerging markets. However, the perception needs to change and the negative image has to be erased if we are to promote healthy tourism in the country.