Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday launched the new online visa system for foreign tourists during a ceremony held in Islamabad.
According to Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf's official Twitter account, the new e-visa scheme will facilitate visitors from 175 countries.
According to National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra), with the introduction of the online facility, tourists seeking to obtain visas to Pakistan will be able to do so within the comforts of their home, without having to visit a Pakistan embassy or consulate.
They simply have to log in to https://visa.nadra.gov.pk, fill out the application, upload the required documents and make the visa fee payment.
Successful applicants will be sent a notification via email and SMS which will be reviewed upon entry into Pakistan.
"Pakistan has seen tough times in its efforts to combat terrorism but the situation today is different," said the prime minister, during his address at the ceremony, giving credit to the efforts of the security forces and intelligence agencies.
"Pakistan is a secure country today. The next season of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) will be held in its entirety in Pakistan instead of Dubai," he said resolutely.
"I know how boring it used to be to play in front of empty stands," he told the audience recalling his days as a cricketer.
The prime minister hailed the launch of the visa portal as a "big step".
"Today I especially congratulate the interior ministry and foreign office. People don't realise that this is a very big change today," he said, before going on to quote the Chinese proverb: "To take a 1000 mile journey you have to take the first step."
"This is the first step to open up the country, the Naya (new) Pakistan. Pakistan always had a mindset: make it as difficult as you can to grant anyone visas," he said, adding that the prevailing thought seemed to have been: "It's better if they don't come."
He said that in the 60s there was great self confidence and self belief that Pakistan is moving up in the world at a pace faster than others and the world too saw and recognised that fact.
The prime minister said that Pakistan's image at that time can be assessed by the fact that President Ayub Khan during his state visit to the United States in 1961 was received at the airport by President John F. Kennedy himself.
He regretted that in the 70s a "socialist government" came and reversed the process (of growth and development).
"Unless a country has wealth generation, it cannot progress. If someone seeks to invest in the country, they will do so when the country has wealth creation. If there is no wealth creation, then it is not as if someone will invest for charity," he explained.
"So our mindset changed in the 70s, whereby we thought of making money as a sin," he continued.
He said that a politician at the time used to begin every speech by criticising investors and landlords. He said a change in mindset is what will eventually bring about the change that the country needs.
"Change will be seen on the ground later; it first has to be present within our minds," said the premier.
He highlighted how the mindset which saw profit making as a negative characteristic had harmed the country. "A country which had greater industrial production than that of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand combined, got left behind soon."
He said that the new Pakistan was a confident Pakistan where there are no security issues.
"Ask Sirajul Mulk how difficult the whole process was for foreigners to go to Chitral: obtaining No Objection Certificates (NOCs) and a whole host of other requirements," he said, gesturing towards the member of the prime minister's task force on tourism.
He said to encourage investment from abroad, the obvious first step was to ease the visa regime of the country.
"When people come here (with ease) only then will they be able to see the potential for investment in Pakistan," he added.
Reminiscing of his college days, the premier recalled how his headmaster Geoffrey Langlands used to take the students for treks to never-before-seen places. He said when he used to tell others to go see them, his proposal was always met with reluctance.
"No Pakistani was ready to go with us," he said adding that it was in fact, his cricket friends from England who used to go with him and then would plead with him to arrange such visits again.
Praising the beauty of the northern areas, the prime minister said that they encompass land twice the size of Switzerland and that there are still scores of undiscovered areas left to explore, also citing a Forbes magazine feature discussing the same.
He said that Pakistan will focus more on selective tourism as package tours had brought much harm to the ecosystem. He said that the task force on tourism will begin work on "ecologically and environmentally friendly tourism in accordance with new best practices".
Sites for tourism
The prime minister said that the biggest aspect of tourism which the policy will focus on is religious tourism. He said that Taxila, which was the centre of Buddhism at one point in time, will be revived.
"We have discovered a 40ft Buddha statue near Haripur — the world's largest sleeping Buddha — which we have yet to share with the world," he said.
He went on to remind the audience also of the fact that two of the holiest sites for Sikhism, Nankana Sahib and Kartarpur are also in Pakistan.
"We also have very old sites for Hinduism in Pakistan, including Katas Raj. And then there is Sufism. The sufis in the region had a big hand in the spread of Islam here and there are multiple revered sufi sites here in Pakistan along with the celebration of various occasions in their memory," he said.
The premier also spoke of how Pakistan's potential for beach tourism remains untapped and said there were many investors interested to take a stake in its development.
He further mentioned several oldest cities in the world which can be found in Pakistan, chief of which he said was Peshawar.
"People don't realise that the world's oldest living city is Peshawar, the centre of which is 2500 years old," he said, adding that with German support, a portion of it had been developed and will soon be open for tourism.
He also included the names of Moenjodaro, Multan, and Lahore in the cities which are some of the oldest and will be an important part of tourism development.
The premier said that these places will all be "brought onto the map" and that a special website will be created for online bookings from across the world. He said that there was a constant search of innovative ways and means which can be used for the promotion of tourism.
Giving an example, he said that to create more room and board facilities in the Northern areas, residents would be provided with cheap loans so they can build annexes to their homes and let them out to tourists.
He further said that people are completely clueless to the skiing opportunities Pakistan has to offer. "Pakistan's gradient from K2 to the coastline is the steepest, with various sites and weather patterns to experience along the way."
'Just the beginning'
He said that today's step was just the beginning of much more to come.
"Following today's launch, is the development of a related strategy for the promotion of tourism. Our missions abroad have so far had a very limited role. Now we will give them the task of investment and tourism promotion," he said, gesturing towards Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Tehmina Janjua, who he said will be spearheading all related efforts including those of serving overseas Pakistanis.
He said that Pakistan is confident today that it has taken the first step on a new path to peace and progress.
The premier vowed that though there were rocky times witnessed due to elections in India, where the spread of hate was used as a tool to gain political leverage, Pakistan will have better relations with its neighbours — including India after the end of their elections.
"We will have good relations with all our neighbours and a peaceful Pakistan will be a prosperous Pakistan, God-willing," he said at the conclusion of his speech.
The premier, prior to his speech distributed shields among the core team members who made the launch possible.
Among the recipients were Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Interior Minister Shehryar Khan Afridi, Interior Secretary retired Major Azam Suleman Khan, Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua, and Nadra Chairman Usman Mobin.
Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry told journalists during a press talk yesterday that the government, in the initial phase of its policy to relax visa policies, has decided to extend e-visa facility to citizens of five countries, including Turkey, China, Malaysia, United Kingdom, and United Arab Emirates. The facility will then be extended to citizens of 170 countries if the pilot project succeeds.
The passenger identification system, Chaudhry said, has already been installed at Karachi and Lahore airports and will be set up at other airports of the country.
Furthermore, the information minister said, business visas will be given to 90 countries, while 55 countries will be granted visa-on-arrival. Earlier, visa-on-arrival facility was only available to nationals of 24 countries.
The government has also chalked out a visa policy for foreign journalists, specifically those from western countries and it is hoped that the move will make it easier for Pakistani journalists to get visas of other countries as well. Chaudhry further said that the government will write to Indian authorities, urging them to grant visas to Pakistani journalists who wanted to cover the upcoming Indian elections.