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Attracting tourists

January 13, 2007

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THERE are times when the antics of our rulers assume surreal proportions. Consider this recent headline as an example: “PM directs tourism ministry to attract one million foreign tourists to Pakistan this year.” This directive seems to suggest that a million foreigners are just waiting to visit us, and they would begin queuing at the airlines office as soon as the tourism ministry sent them a signal.

In the 19th century, the term ‘Shanghaied’ was much in currency in nautical circles. It was used to describe the practice of making young men drunk, and then getting them to serve on ocean-going trading ships. I wonder if we could revive that hoary old method, and Shanghai a million tourists because that’s the only way the prime minister’s target is going to be achieved.

The vision of Ms Nilofar Bakhtiar, the tourism minister, chatting up unsuspecting foreigners in dingy dives abroad, and slipping them a Mickey Finn — those mythical knock-out drops — is a tantalising one. But seriously, Ms Bakhtiar’s task is not an enviable one. Short of bribery or coercion, luring tourists to Pakistan in today’s climate of low-intensity conflict is, as marketing gurus would put it, a hard sell.

The prime ministerial directive pointed out the abundance of tourist attractions that we can justifiably boast of, and instructed the tourism ministry to exploit them. It waxed lyrical about the stunning mountain peaks in the north, the Gandhara civilisation, the many shrines and the British colonial architecture. What it failed to mention was the sectarian violence, especially in the scenic mountain areas, the chronic traffic gridlock in our cities, and the endemic anti-western sentiment that is now so common in Pakistan.

A few months ago, a London-based Pakistani travelled with an English friend to Nathiagali. To be friendly, the visitor salaamed the young boy leading a pony for hire. The boy scowled and said nothing. When my friend chided the boy in Urdu and said he should respond to the greeting, he said: “Hum farangi ko salaam nahin kartay hain.” (“We don’t say salaam to westerners”.)

This little incident speaks volumes for the xenophobic attitudes that have replaced the friendly welcome foreigners once received here. Of course much of this hostility is due to the American-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. But nobody wants to spend good money and travel halfway around the world to be met with surly expressions and possible violence.

Since long before 9/11 and its fallout, western women visiting Pakistan have had to contend with rude stares, salacious comments, and unwanted physical contact. The reality is that the vast majority of Pakistanis are now completely unaccustomed to interacting with foreigners, and stare openly at anybody who looks and dresses differently. As the traffic of foreigners has dwindled to a trickle over the years, they are increasingly seen as creatures from outer space.

Then there is the question of what tourists can do after a day of sightseeing. People from non-Muslim cultures drink a glass of beer or wine with their meals as a matter of course. In the evenings, they would like to go to a movie, a play, a concert or a nightclub. All these are normal activities in the West. Why should people forego these pleasures, especially when they are on holiday?

Malaysia is a Muslim country that attracts millions of tourists every year. It’s tourist resorts cater to all kinds of tastes, and its hospitality industry is geared to serve people from around the world with efficiency and courtesy. Similarly, Turkey, another Muslim country, is a magnet for visitors. Indonesia, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia are all busy welcoming large numbers of foreigners. Dubai has reinvented itself as a tourist destination.

The one feature all these countries have in common, apart from Islam, is tolerance. People there accept that visitors from different cultures dress and behave differently. They also understand that their faith is not endangered by the proximity of non-Muslims. And of course, in many cases, their livelihood depends on the continued influx of tourists.

Then there is the question of image. You can have the best product in the world, but if people believe it to be rubbish, it will simply not sell. In our context, the rest of the world sees Pakistan as a violent, backward land where the mullahs and the military rule. Over the years, we have contributed actively to reinforcing this image. Although we who live here see another Pakistan, the view from abroad is far from friendly.

Ms Nilofar Bakhtiar’s task is not made any easier by the stream of ‘travel advisories’ western governments issue to their citizens from time to time. Invariably, these contain warnings not to visit Pakistan unless it is absolutely necessary. This message is underlined by insurance companies that either refuse to insure visitors to our shores, or raise their premiums. And given the attacks against western citizens, embassies and business interests, who can blame governments from issuing these warnings?

And yet, despite these perceived threats, the truth is that those foreigners who come as the guests of Pakistani friends usually have a very good time. True, they are stared at constantly when they go out, but generally speaking, they enjoy their brief visits. The problem is one of institutionalised tourism where foreigners have to fend for themselves in a hostile environment.

Another reality is that we lack the infrastructure to cope with significant numbers of foreign tourists. Apart for a handful of expensive hotels, there are few establishments that cater to budget tourism. Service is generally poor, and the food often not cooked to the taste of foreigners. And little or no effort is made to entertain visitors beyond arranging sightseeing tours for them.

If the government is serious about attracting tourists, it will have to provide all the facilities and pleasures that foreigners are accustomed to. If other Muslim countries can make it easy for foreigners to drink, what is so special about us?

In short, if we can make Pakistan a foreigner-friendly country, Ms Nilofar Bakhtiar won’t have to Shanghai tourists to visit our country.