LAST week, the Pakistani government announced a new policy of granting visa-on-arrival facilities to 50 countries. It will additionally provide e-visas to citizens of 175 countries. Previously, visa-on-arrival privileges were extended to only 24 countries.
This announcement follows Portugal declaring Pakistan safe for travel last month, while France is working to relax its travel advisory to visit this country.
This is a welcome move, which will surely boost tourism to the country and improve foreign investment.
Foreigners have often bemoaned the complicated and difficult visa application procedures and red-tapism they encounter to enter the country. Last year, a British travel magazine listed the Pakistan visa as one of top five most difficult to acquire. Isolation does not benefit us.
The Pakistani tourism industry took a severe blow post-9/11, suffering from an ‘image’ problem; the country was perceived as an unsafe and unfriendly destination for foreigners, in contrast to our neighbours to the east. Hopefully, the new policy will benefit the country in two ways.
First, it will promote tourism, endorsing the ‘soft image’ of Pakistan, which successive governments have tried to advertise with little success. Pakistan is a beautiful country, with much to offer to the curious and adventurous at heart. It is rich in cultural diversity and history, hosting some of the oldest civilisations within its borders. And it is home to breathtaking natural wonders, which tourists can enjoy at a fraction of the cost of other countries. Lifting NOC for foreigners to travel to places like Gilgit-Baltistan is a great way to promote these natural wonders.
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Another aspect to look into is religious tourism and pilgrimages, as Pakistan is fortunate enough to contain holy sites of several major religions: Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism. The relaxing of visas of Indian-origin American and British citizens will be an additional boost.
Second, it removes some of the paranoia and hostile attitudes towards foreigners that have deepened in recent decades. Prevalent attitudes towards INGOs, many of which do good and thankless work where the state fails its citizens, is just one example.
True, there have been several instances of foreign nationals resorting to terrorism, militancy and espionage here, and this will have to be kept in mind by policymakers as they ease restrictions. But blanket vilification, demonisation and xenophobia towards all foreigners is not the answer.
There are certain other things that the government must keep in mind as it promotes tourism and relaxes visa policies. The most obvious being whether Pakistan even has the necessary infrastructure to accommodate a large number of tourists. This is something the government and private sectors should work towards, in order to be more inviting towards guests. And while security has certainly improved, we must remember that peace remains a fragile, relatively new luxury.
Pakistanis are an overwhelmingly hospitable and welcoming people. It is time our policies reflect that.
Published in Dawn, January 28th, 2019