While many may bemoan the sagging economy and rising poverty, this has not deterred affluent Pakistanis from spending liberally on family vacations abroad.

One guesstimate throws up an astonishing figure of Rs500 billion as the total spending by citizens on annual vacations. And some experts consider this to be a conservative guess.

The projection is based on spending data for business class tickets by tourists in a year, which is said to be around $500 million. This is assumed to be around 10 per cent of the total travel market of outbound air traffic.

There are around 1,000 travel agencies and 100 tour operators who are competing for a share in the travel and tourism business in the country. “There is enough business for everyone in the market. Hardly five per cent of travellers handle their vacation plans privately. The rest engage experts to handle arrangements for them,” a travel specialist told Dawn.

The middle class tends to utilise family vacations for both faith-based obligations and leisure.

Often during a family trip abroad, the middle class prefers to visit holy sites, relatives and pleasure spots in one go. Travel agents consider them to be contributing no less than half of the total volume of spending, as they exceed any other segment in absolute numbers.

The elite travel more frequently to take a breather from social tensions by going to a peaceful environment in some First World country. There are also some others who like to celebrate their success by globe trotting, in their quest to buy themselves the very best that the world has to offer.

Experts, travel service providers, tour conductors and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) officials interviewed by this writer confirmed that local tourists spend billions every year on vacations abroad.

There was no consolidated data available to reflect the actual quantum of spending due to the prevalent practice of dealing in cash, making it more difficult to record such transactions. Regarding the size of such spending, they said the aviation industry and private travel facilitators were the only source for dependable data that could shed some light on the subject.

Market sources believe that a sizeable portion of pleasure trip spending is billed to companies. They informed that group trips to the Far East are often sponsored by multinationals, local pharmaceuticals and big importers of electronic items. The government is another sponsor of group travellers, but such trips are often disguised as official.

The question is: who are the people who holiday with their families regularly every year? The travel agents contacted informed that mostly successful professionals (bankers, lawyers, doctors, architects, technologists, etc), as well as executives of big companies (local and multinational), and businessmen go on vacations on a regular basis.

“I have just finalised a vacation package for three weeks for a seven-member family for June. It includes everything, from tickets to visas to hotel booking to cruise trip and sight seeing. They are going to Europe. I am still working on the bill, but the cost will be no less than Rs5 million. The gentleman is the CEO of a little known, Peshawar-based electronic company. I have been handling his account for the past three years. He spends roughly the same amount on a family trip every year,” said a travel agent based in Karachi.

Anwar Rasheed, an office bearer of the Travel Agents Association of Pakistan, confirmed that the size of outbound travel traffic is huge, and growing. “This can be checked from CAA data. Yes, the collective spending by Pakistanis on foreign air travel runs into billions of rupees. They travel for Hajj and Umrah to Saudi Arabia, and for Ziarat to Iran and Iraq. Many families have relatives abroad, or they have business interests to attend to in other countries. For pleasure, they prefer Far East and Sri Lanka,” he commented.

The preferred destination for pleasure trips has shifted from the West to the East, with the majority opting for Thailand, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and even an expensive visit to Singapore for a variety of reasons. Business travellers are said to comprise hardly five per cent of the total outbound traffic. “Around 2,500 to 3,000 Pakistanis board outbound flights that fly from many cities every day. The return ticket to America costs around Rs120,000. But the cheapest ticket for any foreign destination is Rs25,000. The fare depends on advance booking and from season to season. It is simple math. Keep on multiplying and the results will astonish anyone,” said Ahmed, another local travel agent.

To quote from a press release of a travel and tourism exhibition titled ‘Chutti show,’ held recently in Karachi, “some important foreign airlines are expanding their service across Pakistan and many are increasing the frequency of their flights”.

“Pakistanis also splurge on religious tourism. Every year, more than 700,000 people go to Saudi Arabia for Hajj and Umrah, and most of them stay in four or five- star hotels in Makkah and Madinah. Stifled by visa restrictions, many who have the wherewithal to travel to the US and Europe, have to make do with holidaying in visa-friendly countries like the UAE, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia,” says the press release of the three-day exhibition that had brought together all shades of related businesses for prospective vacation travellers .

“Loaded with wealth, the elite behave truly like a citizen of the world participating in events of their interest in the remotest corners of the globe. Their business interests introduce them to the circuit of globally influential people in trade and industry, and (they) stop at nothing to fit in the club,” remarked a tourism industry activist who was disappointed with the elite’s lack of interest in local tourist spots.

Kazmi, a respected name in the travel and tourism industry endorsed the perception.

“All Arab-based airlines are doing roaring business in Pakistan. Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore are targeting Pakistan as a nation with huge potential to support their tourism industry. Unfortunately, like in several other areas, policymakers in Islamabad have not focussed on this sector for a long time,” he remarked.

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