Recently, I started a project called 'Pakistan is Calling' in an effort to fight stereotypes against Pakistan. Through my project, I'm hoping to generate 12,000 USD to invite foreigners on a fully-funded trip to Pakistan in the spring of 2017.
So far, it has solicited impressive responses from travellers across the globe. Despite offering fully-funded trips, a number of people were willing to come on self-funded trips.
They only requested my help in obtaining a Pakistani visa because they needed an invitation from a national/resident for a visit visa, or from a travel agency for a tourist visa.
Because most of the people do not have any relatives or friends in Pakistan, who could send an invitation, they are compelled to approach a travel agency which will normally demand around $50-60 for an invitation — this excludes the visa-processing fee charged by Pakistani missions.
A couple of years ago, Pakistan announced a liberal visa policy — offering on-arrival visa to groups coming from tourist-friendly countries, which had registered their trip through a designated tour operator.
However, the policy was not very effective because the cost for fully-guided tours is quite high, and controlled by travel agents.
Additionally, Pakistan had also introduced a reciprocal-visa policy based on the principle that, "we will treat your citizens the way you treat our citizens and we will charge visa fee from your citizens equal to what you charge from our citizens".
While the policy honoured the self-respect of the citizens and state of Pakistan, I felt it was imprudent.
Consider this: One of the objectives of Pakistan's tourism ministry is to project the country as a 'tourist-friendly destination'. With this objective, I don't think the policy of reciprocity is very useful.
You are not allowing someone to enter your home, but then you are also expecting people to appreciate the beauty in your home.
It's very common for travellers to live like nomads thanks, in no small part, to freelancing and online blogging. I have interacted with hundreds of nomads who travel and earn money through their travel writings, or by working online while travelling.
I have also met people who have undertaken year-long travels and have wanted to visit Pakistan, only to apply for a visa and find out that the country has a policy whereby visit visas cannot be issued from a third country, unless they have been residing there legally for a long period of time.
For instance, if someone from the United States starts a world tour, reaches a certain country, for example: Iran, India or China and then decides to visit Pakistan for a couple of weeks, he/she will be turned back from that country's Pakistani diplomatic mission and asked to go to back to the US and apply for a visa.
This person will have no option but to skip travelling to Pakistan altogether, or go to visa-friendly countries like Sri Lanka or Nepal.
Home to some of the oldest civilisations, sunny blue beaches, exotic mountain ranges and the land of four seasons, Pakistan has immense potential as a tourist destination.
It is time we invite the world to our relatively unexplored world.
It is high time we reconsider our tourism and visa policies. I've had the good fortune of travelling quite a bit; my experience has taught me that the only way we can dismantle misperceptions about countries is through robust interaction.
It's only when we meet and speak to each other do we realise that things fed to us about a certain nation was not quite the truth.
Having examined visa and tourism policies of various countries, I propose the following recommendations:
A visa-free travel or on-arrival visa facility should be provided for Pakistan's friends like Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, Gulf, China, Malaysia, etc.
Remove the Letter of Invitation (LoI) condition for obtaining tourist visa for all nationalities.
Construct and upgrade the airports in Gilgit, Chitral, Skardu, Chilas, Turbat, Gwadar, Muzaffarabad and Mirpur for international flights, and invite foreign carriers — particularly from Europe to directly land there.
PIA and other private airlines should offer transit facilities at Pakistani airports, while carrying passengers from Central, South or Southeast Asia to Gulf, EU or Americas (or vice-versa) and transiting passengers should have the opportunity to get a transit visa on arrival for some amount of time in order to explore cities like Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore or even Peshawar, Sialkot, Quetta, Faisalabad and Multan.
Introduce an online-visa approval system like in Sri Lanka, Turkey and Georgia which is centralised and easy to manage for both visitors and authorities.
Decrease the exorbitant visa fee for all countries which will, in turn, help attract more visitors and get more revenue.
Discuss a simple visa policy on reciprocal basis with our neighbours, including China, Iran, India and Central Asian States (Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh or Bhutan)
Foster a competitive environment for airlines to allow reduced fares and better connectivity, particularly with neighboring countries. A lower landing cost will attract more airlines, including cheap ones, which will help bring in more visitors and revenue.
Address the reservations of the international community that has restricted Pakistani passports for reasons including, but not limited to, terrorism and smuggling.
For a better cultural understanding of Pakistan, it's important that the country be made more accessible. And I am optimistic that revising our current visa policies is a leap in the direction of removing misconceptions about Pakistan.