Welcoming tourists

17 Apr 2019


The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

“THE diversity and beauty with a combination of deserts, beaches and mountains bestowed by the Almighty upon Pakistan is unmatchable in the world.” So said Prime Minister Imran Khan at the recently held Pakistan Tourism Summit. The “diversity and beauty” of which he spoke is ostensibly being developed by the government of Pakistan into a means of attracting tourists to Pakistan to boost the economy and to reduce the crippling poverty that afflicts millions of citizens. If Malaysia and Turkey can have billion-dollar tourism industries, then Pakistan can, too. Arriving tourists, particularly those from Western countries, will come to trek and climb and see the incredible untouched beauty that describes so many parts of Pakistan.

That, at least, is the dream. Like most just-launched ideas incubated amongst the people who control policy in the country, this one is believed to be a panacea to Pakistan’s dwindling means of attracting investment. To show how serious the whole idea is, an e-visa scheme has also been launched. In a separate speech, President Alvi reminded everyone that Pakistan is “a paradise for tourists” and that the government would be doing everything it could to make it easy for them to come over. In addition to the e-visa scheme, which allows the visa process to be initiated online, a visa-on-arrival scheme has also been launched for China, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the UAE. All, it would seem, is in place for Pakistan to be, as an article in The Telegraph hopefully wondered, “the next big thing in tourism”.

All of this posturing and pandering, which included a line-up of white and Western social media influencers, naturally ended up causing a bit of commotion. Pakistan’s bloggers complained first, sulky and petulant at the fact that they were left out of the cast of characters to be deployed to bring all the tourists to Pakistan. Of the ones that the government had collected, one was done away with when it was learned that she was setting up to be quite critical of the project. Quite predictably, she took to social media (Facebook, in this case) to set out her qualms about the whole affair (and of being cut out of it). It was unclear how the ones that were allowed to speak were selected (other than the fact that they have blogs and are white and want to travel).

Beyond the squabble over the citizenship and the colour of the people selected to sell Pakistan, the tourism summit poses some interesting questions most Pakistanis and most people involved with the summit may not have considered. The premise is that the natural beauty and high mountains and verdant valleys are quite enough to attract the cash-laden traveller. It has not yet occurred to anyone that this premise may in fact be false, or at least flawed. The reason has to do with the basic question of why people engage in leisure travel. For most, the answer to this has to do with having fun, relaxing and having novel experiences.

Like most just-launched ideas, this one is believed to be a panacea to Pakistan’s dwindling means of attracting investment.

At the moment, Pakistan can offer only one of the three: the potential for novel experiences. Indeed, the large doses of chaos that douse everything from roads to electricity supply to water availability are likely to produce new experiences for those who come from more predictable and orderly places. Pakistan can undoubtedly offer up new experiences, but whether these experiences are actually enjoyable is not a guarantee that any Pakistani can offer.

Then there is the problem of fun and relaxation. Even with an e-visa system and visa-on-arrival schemes and better deals for tour companies and travel-related businesses, Pakistan will likely lag behind other countries in the region. This is because a tourism-friendly country is ultimately one that is flexible enough to accommodate the visitor’s idea of fun and leisure. Tourism economies are generally those that are secure enough about their own values that they do not find it necessary to impose them on visitors.

This last aspect is almost impossible in Pakistan. A country where women are routinely harassed and everyone simply ignores the problem, for instance, cannot accommodate female travellers. The latter group may want to wear shorts or tank tops because their definition of fun does not include accommodating someone else’s dress code. Similarly, others may want to consume alcoholic drinks as part of their fun and relaxation, without having to worry about being victimised by religious hard-liners. Neither of the two — women walking around in what they want to wear, or tourists consuming alcohol — would likely be tolerable to most Pakistanis.

In this last fact lies the truth of the situation, why the untouched natural beauty of the country cannot be the cash cow that everyone wants it to be. Pakistan, with its tense and insistent imposition of constraints on people’s behaviour in public, is not flexible enough to accommodate visitors who want to experience the country’s beauty but not follow the strict codes of how to be and what to say that govern Pakistanis. All the visas and social media influencers and bloggers cannot alter the fact that Pakistanis cannot live and let live among themselves and are probably incapable of accommodating the tourist’s definition of fun and freedom without imposing their own moral judgements.

Promoting tourism in Pakistan, then, likely has more to do with setting aside the moral intransigence that so smugly judges and demands that everyone align with its mores; it must graduate from its own version of fun and enjoyment and hospitality to those of the tourists it wishes to attract. If this is not possible, then all the high mountains and green valleys and delicious food cannot attract the world’s travellers to what the travel guide Lonely Planet calls “South Asia’s difficult child”. Before tourist dollars can be expected to transform the country and rid it of poverty, the country and its citizens must transform themselves.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.


Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2019