Promoting domestic tourism is the best way to revive the industry, explains Nasir Jamal.
Domestic tourists play an important role in the development of the tourism industry in a country. In Pakistan, however, domestic tourism remains an underdeveloped area owing to a variety of reasons — official neglect being the most significant factor. Domestic tourists, according to various studies, constitute only a fraction of the local travellers. In fact, an overwhelming majority of the domestic or local tourists are holiday tourists. This is in spite of the fact that domestic tourism is generally recognised as a major source of economic growth, job creation and poverty reduction.
Studies show that the money spent by domestic tourists creates double the number of jobs by promoting local economies through the establishment of small-scale, labour-intensive businesses, as against an equal sum of money invested in manufacturing would generate. Yet none of the governments in the past have ever focused on this aspect of the tourism industry or thought of using tourism as a tool to fight poverty and unemployment.
“The efforts of successive governments and federal and provincial tourism development agencies have historically focused more on promoting foreign tourism or encroaching upon the territory of private tour operators rather than encouraging domestic or local tourism for generating economic activity,” argues a former official of the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC).
Speaking on condition of anonymity, he contends that the development of tourism infrastructure largely depends upon the number of its local users rather than on the flow of international tourists. “Instead of realising this important fact, the focus of official tourism development policies has always been foreign tourists or on building motels and operating tours, which essentially is the job of the private sector, without attracting local tourists. Had the government played the role of a facilitator rather than tour operator, the tourism industry in the country would have been in a much better shape today than it is.”
Private tour operators agree. “The government’s job is to facilitate the private sector by providing tax and other incentives, undertaking mass media campaigns to attract tourists — both local and foreign — managing tourism destinations and spots and making them accessible to the tourists. It is not the business of a government to run hotels and motels and tourist transport at the cost of the private business,” contends a leading Lahore-based tour operator.
A variety of factors have hampered development of the tourism industry in the country: inaccessibility of tourist destinations, shortage of clean and comfortable accommodation at affordable prices, security conditions — especially rising terrorism and kidnappings for ransom — absence of entertainment opportunities for tourists, etc. Tour operators commonly complain about the falling number of domestic tourists during the last five to six years.
“There was a significant growth in the number of local tourists before 2007 on account of rising disposable income and expansion in the middle-class. Things have changed since. Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and surge in terrorism changed many things in the country. Similarly, the worsening economic conditions in the face of soaring prices also compelled the middle- class to cut down on their travels to meet their other expenses,” states the tour operator.
But Salman Rashid, the country’s leading travel writer, says domestic tourism remains underdeveloped mainly because “we have not been able to generate interest about our heritage in the common people”.
“In our country tourism means spending vacations in the mountains during summer. Tourism is also about understanding your heritage and history (and not merely about leisure). We do not have any connection with our history, our past and our heritage. We have never been told or taught about it. Therefore, we do not have anything to be proud of. Hence, our tourism starts and ends in Murree and Nathiagali during summer vacation,” he argues.
He agrees with the suggestion that the tourism development agencies and departments have done little to promote domestic tourism. “Even the literature produced by agencies like the PTDC is in English. Now how many people in this country can read and understand English? Our media too has failed in its duty to raise awareness about tourist destinations,” he explains.
Development of tourism industry is part of the economic revival programme of the new Nawaz Sharif government. It is hoped that the government will focus on the development of local tourism rather than going after international tourists.