PAKISTAN ignores foreign tourism at its own peril. Developing the tourism sector will not only lead to a steady influx of the world’s most powerful currencies, but it is the most effective way to shape an accurate narrative around Pakistan within the world. Tourism must simultaneously be viewed as an economic and national security imperative.
It should be a matter of utmost concern that the presence of a foreigner is still an oddity in old Lahore, academic exchanges are next to nil, and the future diplomats of the West are more likely to study Urdu in Lucknow than Karachi.
The conditions for tourism in Pakistan already exist. The country hosts an impressive highway system and regional airports that link its scenic remote corners to larger cities. Furthermore, a dormant capacity for tourism in places like the Swat valley is a testament to a time when visitors flocked there. Pakistan’s primary tourism barrier is one of imagination and will — not infrastructure or security.
One common assumption is that the security situation in Pakistan makes tourism a nonstarter. This ignores the rapid rise of tourism in other conflict zones. Colombia experienced a half century of insurgency by the Farc guerilla group that claimed 260,000 lives, including numerous foreigners. Tourism began to rapidly develop at least a decade before the 2016 peace agreement between Farc and Bogota.
Even conflict zones can attract foreign visitors.
According to vice president of tourism, ProColombia, Julian Guerrero Orozco, “We don’t hide away from the fact that Colombia used to be associated with violence, drugs and narcos.” Instead, Colombia marketed its tainted reputation as an inspirational story and permitted celebrities like the late Anthony Bourdain to tell it honestly. Tourism in Colombia has grown 300 per cent since 2006. In 2016, it earned $5.7 billion in revenue. The same models can also be seen in Lebanon, Egypt, and across East Africa — so why not Pakistan?
In 2017, Mexico recorded 29,168 murders, many at the hands of narco-terrorists. However, 35 million tourists from around the world still chose to visit. The US State Department issues travel advisories for Mexico on a state-by-state basis because tourists are capable of appreciating the difference between secure and insecure areas within the same country. There is no reason that Lahore should not be filled with tourists even as military operations continue in Waziristan. This is not the exception, but the norm, especially in frontier markets. Social risks such as respect for local norms and control of the country’s illicit economy must be considered, but this has not prevented tourism from flourishing in other conservative societies.
To attract tourists from abroad, Pakistan must design a tourism campaign that is authentic and resist placing foreign models on a pedestal. The oft-repeated notion that tourists will not come because alcohol is prohibited, nightclubs are nonexistent, and beach resorts are few to be found reflects an unimaginative approach.
Tourists may seek the clubs of Ibiza, the poolside bars of Goa, and the resorts of Dubai. However, the snow-capped peaks of Hunza, the minarets of Lahore, and pristine rivers of Swat offer a distinct experience that appeal to a different kind of traveller. If alcohol or an esteemed reputation is crucial to tourism, then one might consider how the bazaars of Tehran and Isfahan are overflowing with European money.
The counterproductive reliance on the Pakistani diaspora — both for remittances and money spent on visits home — must be discarded. This dependence ignores a truth common to all diasporas: the connection to the homeland becomes weaker with time. For example, approximately 36pc of the Pakistani diaspora in the US is under 40 years old and as family connections in Pakistan dwindle, it is unclear whether this demographic will continue annual visits. Even when the diaspora does visit, it is often limited to a single city.
Pakistan’s tourism development should be approached as a community-based effort with an emphasis on connecting foreign tourists with local businesses and experiences. It is unlikely that major foreign-owned corporations will invest in the tourism sector anytime soon, but this is to the country’s advantage, as Pakistan will reap the profits. A growing tourism sector could provide much-needed jobs across the spectrum of skill sets and geographic areas. The government can assist by facilitating academic and cultural exchanges while creating an environment that enables the private sector to develop tourism.
Inviting foreigners to experience Pakistani hospitality carries more potential to improve the country’s image than any manicured narrative delivered in an official speech. It is exponentially more difficult to unfairly demonise or isolate a country after it has been opened for tourism.
The writer is a researcher focusing on law and politics in South Asia.
Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2018