Tourism challenge

27 Feb 2017


LAST week I spent a few days in Fez, Morocco, strolling through the city’s maze-like streets, visiting its ornate mosques and madressahs, and enjoying steaming street food. Being in Fez is akin to entering a time warp; a return to a pre-industrial age in which artisans make copper pots and camel-bone combs by hand, and alleys smell of incense and grilling meat rather than petrol fumes. The city bore an uncanny resemblance to another part of the world — Lahore’s androon shehr.

But with one major difference. Fez’s winding alleys were equally populated by local Fassis as by foreigners from across Europe, Asia and the US. Moroccan adolescents accompanied my meanderings, rattling off greetings in German, Japanese, Spanish, their polyglotism a testament to the high tourist interest in Morocco.

In this context, Morocco offers a model for Pakistan — a predominantly Muslim country that values its history, is open to foreigners and the cultural exchange opportunities they bring, and thus reaps the socioeconomic benefits of tourism. I remembered the exclamations of foreigners I have accompanied to the silent shrines of Uch Sharif, the stunning valleys of Hingol National Park, the mystic ruins of Takht-i-Bahai: who knew Pakistan had such wonders! We too could take advantage of the curiosity of globetrotters.

Awareness of our heritage may help drive a different nationalism.

And then came the news from Sehwan, and with it the reality check that the dream of an open Pakistan will have to be ardently pursued if it is ever to materialise.

A recent Reuters article underscored the potential for Pakistan to emerge as a tourist destination. Domestic tourism is on the rise with visitor numbers for Gilgit-Baltistan alone rising from 250,000 in 2014 to 700,000 last year. The article pointed to the numerous drivers for this: the growth of the middle class; tighter visa regimes that have made international travel more difficult; better access to information thanks to the internet; improved infrastructure. And where domestic tourists go, foreigners are bound to follow.

It seems strange to discuss tourism at a time when people are afraid to leave their homes for fear of falling victim to another suicide bombing. But this is exactly the conversation to have in order to keep alive the vision of an alternate reality for Pakistan. And there are many reasons why Pakistan should promote both domestic and international tourism. In the bluntest terms, it’s good economics: foreign currency inflows, more tax revenues, a spur for local businesses.

More importantly, domestic travel can create a sense of shared heritage and forge a national identity that has been degraded over years of conflict along sectarian and ethno-linguistic lines. It is harder to dismiss what happens in Balochistan when you have seen the landscape, met the people. Tourism can mitigate against isolationism and self-protectionism, and help limit religious or ethnic chauvinism in other contexts, whether infrastructure development or revenue allocation.

By promoting domestic tourism, Pakistan can start to decouple national pride from security policies. Nationalism is currently the exclusive preserve of the right-wing, rooted in martial sentiment and articulated as paranoia about threats to national sovereignty. A greater awareness of Pakistan’s heritage and natural wonders may help drive a different nationalism, one steeped in history and culture.

This awareness could also serve as the counter-narrative to extremism that we have sought with little success for a decade. The fundamentalist, exclusionist worldview of hard-line militancy has no place in a land of ethnic and religious diversity, in a cradle of civilisation.

Increased international tourism, meanwhile, will give a much-needed boost to Pakistan’s global image, helping us have more champions on the world stage. Such soft power can go a long way toward winning tricky foreign policy battles in matters ranging from security to trade.

In 2007, the government launched ‘Visit Pakistan Year’ in the hopes of spurring tourism. Sadly, the Taliban launched their campaign of relentless terror the same year, derailing any efforts to attract visitors. A decade on, it’s time to give the idea another go. Pakistanis are discovering their homeland, there is consensus on the need to improve security, and CPEC will help create a new market of Chinese tourists, setting the stage for others from further afield.

The onus is on our provincial governments to take up the challenge. They have shelved the issue to focus on other concerns like security, infrastructure and tax collection. As a result, monuments such as Mohenjodaro and Derawar Fort are falling to ruin, and there is little interest in enforcing environmental standards to protect our natural wonders. Perhaps realising that tourism goes hand in hand with improved security and economic prospects will make our bureaucrats more invested in preserving and promoting the many treasures Pakistan has to offer.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2017