SLAMABAD: The World Bank has shown interest in helping Pakistan promote religious tourism in the country and said the potential for cultural and heritage tourism linked to Sikhism remains heavily unexploited.

Pakistan’s tourism sector has a ‘captured market’ of followers of Sikhism, with two-fifths of the Sikh respondents considering it a religious duty to visit shrines in Pakistan. About 83 per cent of the Sikh diaspora in Canada, the UK and the US would like to visit religious sites and shrines in Punjab.

The five most important pilgrimage sites for Sikhs are located in Punjab. A study commissioned by the Punjab government estimates that if proper facilities are provided and marketing efforts made, tourism from the Sikh diaspora could easily reach 30,000 tourists per year.


The five most important pilgrimage sites for Sikhism are located in Punjab


According to the study, if the security situation improves significantly the number of tourists can exceed 300,000 per year and its economic impact will then increase from $5 million to an estimated $300m.

A World Bank mission is scheduled to visit Islamabad and Lahore next month to discuss details of the project. The proposed $50m project had generated much interest in the federal and Punjab governments and the task team had received positive feedback from the private sector and civil society organisations, official sources said.

In an assessment report, the World Bank says a total of 7,500 Sikh visitors with Indian passports are allowed each year to visit Pakistan where their three holiest sites are located. This quota is still difficult to fill due to a visa application process that takes roughly four months to complete with stringent background checks and uncertain outcomes.

The World Bank believes that promoting the cultural and heritage tourism sector will not only help promote economic development and better protect cultural heritage but also help project a softer image of Pakistan to the world.

The economic implications of the quota system and visa administration process are so stringent that not many make the journey. The Sikh diaspora with non-Indian passports face a relatively easier process but tour operators complain of a lack of coordination among public agencies involved in the application process that can cause severe delays.

Anecdotal evidence points to a division where British Sikhs go through the same strenuous and lengthy process as Indian Sikhs whereas Sikhs from Canada and the United States can obtain visas in as little as 24 hours.

Pakistan’s natural, cultural and heritage assets are extraordinary and there is scope to leverage the economic potential of tourism, the World Bank says in the report.

National security has recently improved due to great efforts by the Pakistan Army and the federal and Punjab governments. In particular, the army’s continued presence in all regions of Pakistan and a crackdown on violent groups have led to a reduction in attacks. A continued improvement in the security environment would help strengthen the country’s economic growth prospects and over time have a positive effect on the tourism sector, the report says.

Approximately 40 per cent of world tourism revenues are linked to religious tourism and this is a market with tremendous potential that Pakistan has hardly started to develop. The government policy has thus far largely deterred religious tourism despite the millions of worshippers who want to visit holy shrines in Pakistan. Culture and heritage tourism could be turned into an important income source and engine for employment in the country, the assessment report says.

Cultural and heritage tourism is a large and growing international market that Pakistan could leverage to create more and better jobs. Pakistan is home to numerous heritage sites linked to the Indus Valley Civilisation, a Bronze Age civilisation in north-western Pakistan and the Mughal Empire. It also hosts the holiest sites of Sikhism and many important pilgrimage sites for Buddhists and Hindus.

The Punjab chief minister has established a steering committee to oversee promotion of cultural and heritage tourism in the province. District coordination officers (DCOs) will serve as project directors for the sites in their respective areas. The provincial government has also set up an advisory council comprising distinguished professionals with the objective of overseeing the overall policy related to the promotion of cultural heritage and project implementation.

Identification works and consultations at the pre-appraisal stage would help narrow down the priority sites and likely include Gurdwara Rori Sahib in Eminabad, Gurdwara Bal Lila Sahib and Gurdwara Tambu Sahib in Nankana Sahib, and Gurdwara Dera Sahib.

Published in Dawn, June 11th, 2016