THIS week, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced the PTI government’s new policy to relax Pakistan’s arduous visa application process in order promote tourism and investment in the country. This new policy is to allow foreign nationals from 175 countries to be issued three-month e-visas within seven to 10 working days, while the visa application fees will be slashed by up to 22pc to 65pc. This announcement comes at the same time as talks with neighbouring India resume over the opening of the Kartarpur border crossing for Sikh pilgrims. Undoubtedly, religious tourism is one area Pakistan will greatly benefit from, with the relaxing of visa applications to the country, given that it is host to a number of holy sites of some of the world’s major faiths. This was acknowledged by the prime minister himself as he spoke of the sleeping Buddha near Haripur, the Katas Raj temple complex, and the Nankana Sahib and Kartarpur pilgrimage sites.
In an earlier speech, he had also mentioned the Sufi shrines that are scattered across the country, and are deeply embedded in our culture and folklore, but that have also been the target of bomb blasts by extremists in recent years. Undoubtedly, Pakistan is safer for tourism than it was a few years ago, but the scourge of terrorism and extremist thinking have not been wiped out, and law enforcement remains weak in many ways — overburdened and underfunded. The Pakistan we live in today is a very different country from the one in the past. And we cannot compare ourselves to other countries in Asia at this point. Pakistan is a unique country with a unique landscape — but the challenges it faces are also unique. Simplifying the visa process is not enough to attract international tourists. Challenges such as safety concerns, substandard transport, poor upkeep of historical sites and the lack of clean, convenient and affordable living facilities remain. An intelligent and comprehensive plan is needed to address these and other drawbacks.
Published in Dawn, March 16th, 2019