ISLAMABAD: Many entrepreneurs associated with the tourism sector, such as tour operators, agree with an American traveller and blogger who recently described Pakistan as a country where tourists face a number of problems.
Alex, who is behind the travel blog called “Lost With Purpose”, was invited to speak at the Pakistan Tourism Summit last month. However, she alleged that her talk was cancelled at the last minute after organisers said it was too critical.
After being “silenced” thus, Alex decided to upload her talk on Facebook. In her talk, she pointed out how the government seemed serious in developing the tourism sector.
In the 14-minute video, however, she argued that the current social media coverage of Pakistan as an ideal tourist destination was rather misleading.
She pointed out that “oversimplification of travel in Pakistan” could create problems for independent travellers as they were likely to encounter unofficial restrictions, harassment from officials, unclear bureaucratic procedures and mandatory armed escorts, besides the potential for cultural clash.
Most private tour operators concede that Pakistan as a tourist destination has long been neglected by the government, which for many years was engaged in trying to improve a deteriorating law and order situation. But they also believe that the outside world considers Pakistan as an ideal tourist destination because of its landscape, culture, history and archaeology, which will pull visitors from all corners of the planet.
During a tourism promotion conference last week, speakers, nonetheless, complained that on the ground, tourists faced many problems starting with the arduous process of getting a “very” difficult Pakistani visa.
“Last year a small number of 17,823 foreigners travelled to Pakistan on tourist visa. The number of tourists should have been in hundreds of thousands, given the potential the country offers. The entire visa process is discouraging [potential tourists],” said president of the Sustainable Tourism Foundation Pakistan, Aftab Rana, who is also a member of the new Tourism Board formed by the PM.
Mr Rana believes that bloggers often exaggerate things in an effort to make their videos viral and says that Pakistan still has a lot of shortcomings.
“There is much reality in her [Alex] observations. Genuine complaints, such as the behaviour of security personnel in her video cannot be wished away and we must address all the problems she has highlighted, especially problems they face with security agencies,” he said.
Other speakers at the conference also complained about how visitors in groups, who came through registered tour operators, were made to step out of their vehicles to register at a dozen or so security pickets before being allowed to continue with their journey into Gilgit-Baltistan.
“That 18-hour journey can easily become a 24-hour one. Even though a new notification about free movement of foreigners was issued in March, it remains to be implemented. Behaviour at check posts with tourists has to be friendly. We must give them respect and honour them. All the positive aspects about Pakistan such as our amazing hospitality will be undermined if these concerns are not addressed,” said a speaker.
“They will pick up the little things that cause them discomfort and inconvenience. We must admit the truth that we do have problems,” he said.
Another private tour operator, Mohammad Ali, said there was no doubt that the visitors did face problems, like getting no-objection certificates and getting “harassed” by security personnel everywhere. “A tourist, who comes in a holiday mood, should not be held up at multiple security pickets as pointed out by Alex,” he said.
Many believe that many factors needed to be managed first — such as how to facilitate visitors by providing them facilities — and only then should Pakistan be publicised as an ideal destination.
“Until then tourists such as Alex will face difficulties and will highlight the problems on social media, which we cannot afford,” said veteran climber Jabbar Bhatti. “If we tell the truth the tourists will still come,” said the oldest Pakistani climber of Mount Everest.
Secretary of the Alpine Club of Pakistan Karrar Haidri drew attention of the authorities towards the lack of facilities and infrastructure, like lack of electricity in most parts of the Northern Areas and road blocks after landslides, which could take three days to clear.
“But the decision to welcome tourists is an excellent one. This will have far-reaching effects in the long run. At least the government is sincere.”
While the Inter-Services Intelligence did not respond to requests for comment and neither did interior ministry officials, the only official who did comment on condition of anonymity said, “Material on social media cannot be used to write reports.”
The Gilgit-Baltistan Council, however, claimed that tourists who visited the region for climbing or trophy hunting faced few problems.
“The concerns are genuine and some corrective measures are needed. But we are a country afflicted with 30 years of terrorism and tourists need to be extra cautious. A tourist visiting Pakistan strictly for tourism hardly faces problems. There was a foreign lady who toured the country on a motorbike and had no trouble,” said one GBC official.
He also drew attention to Pakistan’s social, economic, political fabric which was destroyed fighting a war that was “theirs” and a society exposed to wrongs such as killings and drugs.
“The fact that we did not turn into Afghanistan and Iraq is an accomplishment. And so many tourists still visit Pakistan is fascinating. There is plenty of propaganda against Pakistan and most countries issue unnecessary advisories to their citizens to scare them,” he said.
“Alex obviously holds a grudge for not being allowed to speak [at the conference]. We should break the myth that Pakistan is an unsafe country. There isn’t a better place for tourism than Pakistan despite the limited resources,” said another official.
Published in Dawn, April 22nd, 2019