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Sunday magazine special: Where are the tourists?

Updated June 23, 2013

Road block

Apathy and indifference rather than militancy spell the death of tourism, believes Azmat Ansari.

Brown, green and blue.
Brown, green and blue.
Tourism in Pakistan is a victim of our lack of commitment to realise its full potential. It has suffered because of our utter indifference, lack of innovative skills, poor marketing, poor motivation, poor campaigning and lack of vision.

Pakistan is home to a unique heritage; the discovery of 7,000-year-old dentist’s drill from Mehrgarh shows that this was the land from where dentistry began. Figurines excavated from the same place suggest that it is also the birthplace of wigs and hairstylists for women. Yet one never sees even a word in the media on any of these topics.

Our indifference to whatever we have is taking its toll. Of the 40 acres of Jahangir’s tomb in Lahore, 10 or more have remained unutilised for the last 200 years, old fountains don’t play, walkways are dishevelled and land grabbers have their eyes on the land within the four walls of the tomb. Shoddy maintenance of Shalimar Gardens is being noticed. “It is clean one week and untidy the next — empty bottles of water, boxes of fruit juices and plastic bags litter the premises,” visitors from Karachi to Lahore complain. Do we have any kind of working manual and standard operating procedures for ensuring the cleanliness and maintenance of our monuments and gardens? Probably not.

Eco-tourism which has huge potential in all the four provinces is also neglected. Whatever goes by the name of eco-tourism is insufficient. Has anyone tried to publicise the fact that tulips grow wild in the deserts and hills of Pakistan? Pakistan and particularly the climate of Karachi is ideal for growing orchids. No one has tried to benefit from the fact that more than 2,500 kinds of flowering trees and bushes are found in Pakistan. More kinds can be grown in all the provinces.

Even during wars, people with innovative skills have sold excursions to people who were very happy to take them; for example, delegations, even from Pakistan, visited Sri Lanka during the war with Tamils. I was a member of one such delegation. Tourist guides casually explained to the visitors that sandbags and bunkers at and around the airport were precautionary measures. The fighting was in Jaffna, which did not affect any tourist visiting the rest of Sri Lanka.

We have a similar situation in Pakistan, but there is no mechanism in place to explain to tourists that reported incidents of violence don’t mean that the whole country is on fire. A couple from Canada during a dinner arranged for them by my brother in Karachi said, “A great injustice is being done to all of you. Pakistan is 100pc opposite of what it is being made to out be.” People coming here from Britain, the US and Europe have said similar things in different words.

We do not exploit or promote even the most amazing events which would draw tourists from around the world. The discovery of megalithic graves in Gulistan-i-Jauhar some time back conclusively proved that Karachi was visited 4,000 years ago by carriers of articles of commerce, coming from Central Asia for onward shipment to the Arab and African countries, yet the discovery was not given due importance.

The only surviving evidence is a handmade pitcher that was unearthed during the excavation which was once displayed as the ‘Object of the Month’ by the National Museum. However, the object of the greatest archaeological significance was a rock on which the ancient people of Karachi had carved a channel with the aid of chert (hard, sharp stone) blades. It was a very big channel, four inches deep and eight feet long, maybe one of the longest channels in the world carved by chert blades.

The rock was worth its weight in gold but it was destroyed by dynamite by the owner of the land who was afraid that the government might confiscate his land. I know all this because I had organised the excavation myself, while a very able archaeologist Dr S.M. Ashfaq directed it. Both of us worked for free — I as a facilitator and Dr Ashfaq as an expert.

One fails to understand why historians and authors of books are shy of saying that concrete evidence has been found that shows that the history of Karachi goes back at least 4,000 years. If Unesco has failed to take notice of this huge discovery, our ministry of tourism should have campaigned to make relevant organisations realise what we had discovered in Karachi.

Our indifferent attitude is responsible for the lack of development of a star product for tourism — saltwater sports fishing. Millions of dollars worth of foreign exchange can be earned through the promotion of this sport. Water sports are neglected; active snorkelling is being done in Karachi but the number of participants is not more than 200. There are only two or three promoters of this sport.

Apathy is apparent in the very maps designed for guiding the tourists. “Many of the maps are old and outdated,” says the public relations officer of a five-star hotel. We fail to cash in some of our obvious advantages.

The present number of tourists can be doubled. Five-star hotels complain that their initiatives for doing something for promoting tourism seldom get a proper response.