The irony of having an 'iron brother' — My failed quest for a Chinese visa

Published February 9, 2016
It's disappointing that our government and the Foreign Office also doesn't seem to take tourism seriously. —Reuters/File
It's disappointing that our government and the Foreign Office also doesn't seem to take tourism seriously. —Reuters/File

Hitchhiking a few months ago from Europe to Pakistan, I stopped in Tbilisi — the capital of Georgia — where I met two Chinese travellers in the hostel I booked myself in.

The duo could barely contain their excitement when I told them I was from Pakistan. We conversed about everything under the sun — our trips, future plans, and of course, the friendly relations between Pakistan and China.

And so, predictably, we came to a point where we decided to visit each other's country.

Take a look: China says Pakistan 'most reliable friend', vows to 'help in all respects'

I was, however, disappointed to learn that my Chinese friends could not visit Pakistan because in order to acquire a tourist visa, they needed an invitation from a travel agent in Pakistan. To top this, they were required to pay a sum of $300 for the invite.

"What sort of friendship is this? Where you can't even allow your friends into your country without such an exorbitant amount and a sponsor?" remarked my Chinese friends.

Embarrassed, I checked the website of the Pakistani Embassy in Beijing which said, Pakistan Embassy does not receive any visa and processing fee from Chinese nationals".

Turns out that because it is mandatory for tourists travelling to Pakistan to submit an invitation, the travel agency asks for this amount, which is way higher than the appropriate commission.

Just a couple of months ago, I wanted to plan a road trip from Indonesia to Pakistan via Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and China. I, however, ended up postponing the trip indefinitely because not only did I need an invite for China but also Indonesia and Singapore.

This was aside from the fact that there were other miscellaneous issues with different embassies, not only proving to be a major budget strain but also delaying my purchased trips to Malaysia and Sri Lanka.

Safe to say that after travelling to more than 30 countries and experiencing relentless interrogation at border controls, I've resigned myself to the fate that comes with being a green passport holder.

Read: The green passport

I was, however, shocked to discover that I could not obtain an individual tourist visa for China because Pakistani nationals can only travel to China in a group!

One needs to wait for an arranged group tour to China through an agent. This is on the condition that you buy the complete package from an agent — including the airline tickets, hotel bookings, airport pick and drop services, etc.

The agent also decides the fee for the invitation letter, flights and hotels. This is severely inconvenient for a budget traveller like myself, who prefers to travel without a plan and couchsurf. So much for being iron brothers.

A travel agent I spoke to said he could get me a business visa for China for Rs100,000. I regretted the offer because I could not afford such an exorbitant sum and finally gave up on the Chinese visa.

I have met several individuals who wish to come to Pakistan but have to think twice because of security concerns. Even if they muster up the courage, our visa policies are enough to make anyone feel weary.

It's disappointing that the government and the Foreign Office doesn't seem to take tourism seriously.

Take a look: Pak-China friendship — A deep review

Why can't we open Gilgit and Skardu airports for international flights from Europe and other parts of the world, and allow Europeans and other friendly nationalities to land here without visas?

Why can't we invite foreign carriers to fly directly to Gilgit, Skardu, Chitral or even Chilas?

It is high time that the authorities address these reservations and implement a mutual visa waiver program, or at least an on-arrival visa facility on reciprocal basis, with different countries — especially our neighbours and whom we call our friends.

Many countries today — including India — are opting for an online visa approval system which is centralised, organised and simple for both the applicants and the approving authorities. Why can't we have something similar?

We've heard enough about iron brothers and fair weather friends, it would be nice to see that implemented in (visa and) spirit.

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