Pakistan is uniquely placed to take advantage of religious tourism. What is stopping us?

Significant improvements in security mean that the sector is now poised to pick up.

Updated Oct 17, 2019 05:11pm

Tourism has grown faster than the global economy for the eighth consecutive year. Today, more than a billion people travel internationally, with around half these journeys destined for developing countries. Pakistan is uniquely placed to take advantage of this trend.

Travellers can experience the historical heritage of one of the oldest civilisations in the world, worship at the rich collection of Sufi shrines, Hindu temples, Sikh gurdawaras and Buddhist monasteries, scale some of the highest mountains in the world, or simply experience natural beauty ranging from blossoming trees against a backdrop of snow-clad peaks in Gilgit-Baltistan to pristine beaches in Gwadar.

However, despite this wealth of tourist attractions, Pakistan’s tourism sector trails far behind that of India, Turkey, Sri Lanka and the region in general.



The direct contribution of the travel and tourism sector to Pakistan’s gross domestic product is just 2.8 per cent compared to the regional average of 3.5pc.

In terms of receipts from foreign tourists across South Asia ($33.82 billion in 2016), Pakistan scrapes a share of less than 1pc of this important source of foreign exchange compared to India's share of 69pc, Sri Lanka’s 10pc and Maldives’ 7pc.

Moreover, in sharp contrast to the dramatic improvements in the share of travel and tourism to India’s economy, in Pakistan, this share has remained fairly stagnant.

What is the economic potential for tourism in Pakistan? What is holding us back from reaching the potential and what can be done about it?

Boosting the economy

What if Pakistan’s international tourism sector contributed to the economy at similar rates as the rest of South Asia? The gains to GDP would be $1.5 billion.

What if Pakistan surpasses South Asia and international tourism contributed at world average rates? The gains to GDP would be $3.5 billion — equivalent to the value of Pakistan’s largest current export item, cotton.



Simple back-of-the-envelope calculations show a substantial economic impact of existing domestic tourism as well.

For instance, looking at just domestic tourism to heritage and religious sites in Punjab, the Tourism Development Corporation of Pakistan (TDCP) identifies 480 such sites across the province. Of these, 106 are of historical importance, 120 religious and a further 26 of both religious and historical importance.

Assuming a modest average spend of Rs200 per trip per person and using TDCP data on the number of visits to each site, revenue generation through these domestic visits is currently estimated at Rs54 billion per year — two-thirds of what international tourists spend in Pakistan each year.

With the right policies in place, Punjab alone can contribute a three- to four-fold increase in the revenue generated by domestic tourism.

Related: Three locations Punjab should put on its tourism map

Pakistan is an especially important site for both Sikh and Buddhist tourists. At one point, Punjab was the centre of the only Sikh empire in history. Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Baba Guru Nanak, is one of the holiest sites for Sikhs, with the potential to attract as many pilgrims as the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Yet, barely 6,000 Indian Sikhs visit Pakistan, in contrast to over 50 million that visit the Golden Temple — just 120 kilometres away from Nankana Sahab — each year (this includes multiple visits from the same visitors).

The number of pilgrims coming to Pakistan each year and where they stay is controlled and managed for political and security reasons by the state, albeit with fewer restrictions on diaspora Sikhs as compared to Indian Sikhs.

According to survey data, a whopping 83pc of the eight million diaspora Sikhs living outside India have shown interest in visiting Pakistan. In addition, 79pc of the 20 million Indian Sikhs expressed an interest in visiting Pakistan. In sharp contrast, just 10pc had actually come to the country.

Nankana Sahib
Nankana Sahib

Improvements in visa restrictions, security and infrastructure can lead to an increase in tourist numbers and a change in the profile of existing Sikh tourists, which is currently heavily biased towards low-end visitors (those who won’t be spending too much).

For instance, allowing one-day visas for day trips to Nankana Sahib, a mere two-hour drive from Wagah, can boost visits from Indian pilgrims.

Conservative estimates of the economic impact of boosting Sikh tourism, that keep the current expenditure profiles and mix of pilgrims as given and assume that a small fraction of the Sikhs that expressed an interest in visiting Pakistan do actually visit, show an approximately 85-fold increase in Sikh tourists’ expenditure on goods and services in Pakistan. The current spend of Rs208 million can reach almost Rs18 billion.

This is assuming 44,000 annual visitors (a mix of diaspora and national Sikhs, with some high-spending and others low-spending tourists) with most staying for two weeks, some single-day visits and spending between Rs4,000 to Rs20,000 per day per person.

Read next: An odyssey in the Thal desert

The gains to the economy, however, are not restricted to these direct expenditures on hotels and transport. They create ripple effects through the economy via indirect and induced expenditures.

Hotels purchase more goods and services from their suppliers and expand their facilities (indirect expenditures). When the region becomes more active as a tourist hub, increased employment and economic activity spillover to higher spending on all goods and services in the area (induced effects).

The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that every rupee of direct expenditure is expected to lead to an additional spend of Rs1.46. Every direct job in the travel and tourism sector also implies an additional 1.55 jobs in related sectors. Incorporating these multiplier effects, the total contribution of Sikh tourists is projected to reach approximately Rs44 billion every year, generating over 82,000 jobs.

Takht-i-Bahi.— Fazal Khaliq
Takht-i-Bahi.— Fazal Khaliq

Similarly, Buddhist tourism has an estimated market of 500 million Buddhists across the world. Pakistan’s Gandhara region comprising Mardan, Taxila and Swat holds a special place for them. Korean Buddhists in particular trace their religious origin to the area that is now Pakistan, where Korean monk Hyecho travelled 1,300 years ago.

Just recently, a 48-feet-long Buddha was also unearthed in Haripur, making it the world’s oldest sleeping Buddha statue. Takht-i-Bahi in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the sites in northern Punjab alone have the potential to attract a major proportion of the 50 million Mahayana Buddhists in Korea, China and Japan.

A 2016 Gallup survey of the Buddhist population across a selected pool of countries identified 58 million “interested visitors” of which 5pc (2.9 million) were “likely to visit” Pakistan. Poor security situation, lack of marketing and tourist facilities and the absence of a functional Buddha stupa are currently preventing this potential from being realised.

Facilitating these tourists and reaching just 1pc realisation for Pakistan would mean 29,000 visitors a year, with a revenue inflow of $62.9 million in the near term. Accounting for the direct and indirect effects, Buddhist tourism can contribute over Rs16 billion to GDP and provide employment to 30,772 people.

What is holding us back?

Where can we begin in order to realise this potential? The most important impediment identified in surveys in the past has been Pakistan’s security situation. Significant improvements in security mean that the sector is now poised to pick up.

In recognition of this, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf-led government has shown a keen interest in reviving this sector. They have established a national task force on tourism, followed by approval of a National Tourism Coordination Board. They have also announced a new visa policy, plan to provide online visa facility for 175 nations and have relaxed the system of No Objection Certificate for certain regions.

Tourism remains a key area of cooperation under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, realising the enormous potential of Chinese tourists and impact on international tourism of overall improvements in infrastructure.

There are, however, some additional factors that remain unaddressed. A critical one is an appropriate institutional and regulatory structure that allows for conservation and regulation, provision of facilities, effective management and data-driven planning to understand and attract tourists in a manner that is environmentally sustainable.

Existing institutional and regulatory arrangements for the tourism sector remain weak, complex and in need of serious reform. Multiple agencies and departments are involved in the sector, without any specialised experience in managing heritage and religious sites and without conformity in practicing international or Unesco standards. Special management structures like the Walled City Authority do exist, yet there is a need for a consistent approach that applies to all sites of significance.

Katas Raj. —Nefer Sehgal
Katas Raj. —Nefer Sehgal

Federal-provincial coordination poses further challenges. Federal jurisdiction over some heritage sites is still maintained by the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETBP) even though it has no legal authority post-18th Amendment.

The impact of these issues is exemplified in the experience of Katas Raj, a complex of seven ancient Hindu temples. The ETBP exercises complete authority over the development and restoration of Katas Raj without apparent oversight of the provincial archaeology department or any in-house expertise in conservation and restoration.

This institutional flaw has led to renovations using plaster and paint, which have permanently destroyed any remaining vestiges of antiquity. The floors and steps throughout the complex have been re-laid using white marble that looks completely anachronistic in that environment. Most importantly, nearby cement factories have contaminated and dried up the centuries-old pool of water considered holy by Hindus.

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While suo moto action was taken after media reports last year, the experience highlights the gaps in the regulatory environment that have allowed substantial and potentially irreversible damage to historical sites.

Other issues that arise from poor institutional arrangements include poor tourism infrastructure, low involvement of the private sector, inadequate marketing and low enforcement of quality standards.

The Punjab Tourism for Economic Growth report develops five strategic thrust areas to address these issues and unlock tourism’s potential: tourism infrastructure, safety and security, branding, developing talent for tourism services and policies for sustainable tourism that involve and benefit local communities, as well as regulation that preserves heritage sites.

With these arrangements in place, Pakistan can look forward to revamping its tourism industry to take its rightful place in the country's development.

Header photo: Tomb of Bibi Jawindi in Uch Sharif, by Usama Shahid


This piece is based on a report by the Consortium for Development Policy Research, supported by the World Bank, and titled "Punjab Tourism for Economic Growth". The team of researchers was led by Mr Suleman Ghani (policy consultant and former civil servant). The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.


Are you working in Pakistan’s tourism industry? Share your insights with us at prism@dawn.com

Email


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Hina Shaikh is currently working as a country economist at the International Growth Center's Pakistan programme. She can be reached at hinanshaikh@gmail.com

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Nazish Afraz teaches economics at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. She can be reached at nazishafraz@lums.edu.pk


The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (63) Closed

Singh
May 02, 2019 05:35pm
I’m an Indian Sikh living in Australia. I never thought bad about Pakistan. I worry for both sides when tensions are high . I wish if all this friction can go away and peace prevails in this region.
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Karachi King
May 02, 2019 05:57pm
Very well articulated. However more info can be incorporated.
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Sarai Alamgir
May 02, 2019 06:11pm
Great article, someone has laid out the issues and the need to do something.
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Human
May 02, 2019 06:15pm
She has given all practical suggestion, Pakistan should implement it.
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Tariq, Lahore
May 02, 2019 06:33pm
For a genuine tourist a trouble free 'experience' is the most desirable commodity! Pakistan has the 'desirable commodity' to sell to the genuine tourist but we lack at present the structure for a 'memorable' experience for the tourists'. To succeed we need to work hard to cultivate that 'mind set' of 'our' tourist industry - first and foremost 'that caring' hospitable attitude of the people running the industry, followed by infrastructure - good/high standard hotels, well informed guides. Remember, a tourist will pay a good price for a good service and are likely to return another time!
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Ali
May 02, 2019 06:34pm
Tourism is the biggest industry in the world yet our governments had ignored it in the past. The PTI government has given it top priority which it deserves, as it will create millions of new jobs and billions for the economy. It will be boom for the hotel industry and struggling railway and airlines, this will turn PIA's near bankruptcy to regain its past glory and become "Great People To Fly With" again. Pakistanis are known to be the most hospitable people in the world. Pakistan welcomes the World.
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Syd
May 02, 2019 06:40pm
All the talk about promoting tourism, what concrete steps government has taken to preserve and upgrade historical locations. Any investment policy to build and increase quality accommodations. Right now we don't even find toilets for elderly, women or children, let alone talk about accommodations.
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Jamil
May 02, 2019 06:49pm
In answer to headline, its previous pmln and ppp that have not paid attention to increasing tourism because there were better and easier ways to make their personal wealth
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Shehzad
May 02, 2019 07:15pm
Hina and Nazish have done a great job highlighting both the problems and the revenue generating potential of our tourism industry. All of us have to do what we can to make a difference and if we can't do anything whatsoever then at least we should throw trash everywhere.
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Lahori kid
May 02, 2019 07:47pm
These are some beautiful buildings, more importantly, beautiful places of worship. We really must preserve these historical landmarks, even if we are a Muslim majority country.
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Sanjeev
May 02, 2019 08:31pm
People generally look for historical sites,beaches with good food and fun or adventure.There is too much competition amongst beaches but the other two areas can be explored.First step should be to get non resident Pakistanis as foreigners will not come into the subcontinent unless the security situation improves.
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ahmed
May 02, 2019 08:39pm
Well articulated article that needs serious attention by all govts.
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ravi
May 02, 2019 09:27pm
Spot on. I have been telling to my Pakistani friends for long time. If Egypt can make huge money on their heritage sites, why cant Pakistan?? I dont understand this. first university is there, Indus valley civilization is there, all Vedas were written there, even Sanskrit ( Pannini) derived in that region. All Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism were once flourishing there. Why not to make money out of that?? From my limited understanding of Pakistan, I tell you why it never happened: - Identity crisis of people: while speaking with some Pakistani friends in Europe and US, I realized that most of them dont want to associate themselves as a son of Soil. They think roots are in central Asia or any other country than Pakistan. That makes me surprise always. - History books and classes should teach the through history of Pakistan. what I understood, most of the history books focus only after 1400AD - Keep religion and culture separate. Religion cant and shouldn't change the culture the region. Once people accept their origin, past and proud, I bet you, alone Tourism can bring billions of USD. cheers
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Anjali
May 02, 2019 09:32pm
@Tariq, Lahore, From my experience Pakistanis are amng the most hospitable people on earth to their guests. If the Tourism Industry can embrace this and consider tourists to be guests, tourism to Pakistan is bound to increase.
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HZR
May 02, 2019 09:59pm
Indians who are the new globe trotters are going all over the world including neighbouring SriLanka in droves.Indians are a big part of Swiss tourism where huge cut outs of SRK are displayed to entice Indians.Pakistan with so much in common from food to language with Indians can be a goldmine if only our leaders have vision.
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Moltke the Elder
May 02, 2019 10:02pm
What is holding you back is the fact that you support people who blow blew up the statues of Buddha in Bamyan, a historic treasure now lost to bigotry. If you had allowed India to maintain & carry out research in Indus Valley sites, it could have netted millions of dollars both in tourism & payments from Archaeological Survey of India. But you let them rot & today there is far less to work upon than there should have been. Whether it is economy or security, it is the misplaced priorities of Pakistan that are pulling the country down.
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Agrippa - the Skeptic
May 02, 2019 10:10pm
If you step on the gas now and work on all the parameters - security, transport, lodging and boarding ..., the first tangible results can be seen in 5 years.
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KhanRA
May 02, 2019 10:44pm
Visas for Indian Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians should be relaxed so Shrines, tombs, churches, Gurdwaras, and historic sites can all benefit the economy.
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Killer
May 02, 2019 10:44pm
@ravi, Pakistan is responsible for tying itself in knots in every aspect. On a side note I’m very sad our ancestors were unable to hold off the hordes from Central Asia. The world would have been a much much better place if they had.
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Faran
May 02, 2019 10:58pm
The land where Pakistan is situated had 4000 years old civilization. Harrpan, Indus valley culture thrived here and Indus valley civilization is still continuous. We Pakistanis must learn our history and do not look at it as a religion based history. Our young generation should protect the ancient heritage and be proud of it. This will encourage tourism and identity.
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Texan
May 02, 2019 11:04pm
Tourism was on its peak in 1950s and 1960s. What was different than now? I think Pakistan was a more moderate and efficient society, and PIA promoted Pakistan better then now. Return to basics of how Jinnah formed this country and fix the condition of these ancient infrastructure with renovation and better facilities around. Pakistani culture, food, mountains, beeches historical sites and roads are far better than most Asian countries that I have travelled to.
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Kuku
May 02, 2019 11:19pm
When I read headline was dreading that this is another one of delusion about Pakistan being "uniquely-placed". The whole region is "uniquely placed" provided there is peace, infrastructure and culture of tourists not being taken advantage of, remember there are many unique places in world providing options.
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Rajab Soomro
May 02, 2019 11:34pm
First, we need to improve security conditions in Pakistan. Once we establish ourselves as a safe country to travel, then we need to work building hotels, resorts, beaches and other infrastructure related to travel and tourism.
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Think
May 02, 2019 11:56pm
How can you expect foreign tourists to visit Buddhist and Hindu sites when Pakistanis themselves have no pride in their heritage and think their heritage is in the middle east?
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N. Rahim, Toronto
May 03, 2019 12:07am
@Agrippa - the Skeptic, So be it. Need to begin somewhere. But I do not believe it will take that long. There are places that already have some infrastructure. Improved security is also a must.
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Sat
May 03, 2019 01:32am
May I add another Sikh Gurudwaras which is very holy for all Sikhs and Hindus. It is PUNJA SAHIB. It is believed that imprint of Guru Nanak Ji’s hand is there on a hill and water has been flowing ever since - more than 500 years now. The second one is Devi Mata temple in Bulochistan also known as Nani Ka Mandir. It is approachable from Karachi. Many Hindus in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Sind know about this temple. Just for information, the Devi Mata temple in J&K is visited every year by a few million people. This religious tourism will ensure people to people contact leading to better relations between our two countries. But security is number one issue in Pakistan. I was born in an area which is now Pakistan and still think for Pakistan.
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Rohit
May 03, 2019 01:51am
Name one single country with significant tourism revenue where alcohol is not allowed. That is the elephant in the room!
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Tegulu
May 03, 2019 02:15am
@KhanRA, So the worry would be if the travelers would change the mind of the local population and reverse conversions might happen once people know their actual roots!
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white noise
May 03, 2019 02:25am
This is an easy one, Infrastructure and security.
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Anjan Majumdar
May 03, 2019 02:35am
We should only allow our fellow brothers to travel to our land. All other people may spoil the earth of our pure & pious country.
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Amrud Ali
May 03, 2019 03:45am
Nice write up. How about a reality check? You think the religious nin-com-poops and the boys in Khaki are going to allow that to happen? Dreams are free. Dream away.
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shubs
May 03, 2019 03:55am
Fabulous picture at the top of the article. As per Google, it's The Tomb of Bibi Jawindi...what a beautiful structure!
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Kamath
May 03, 2019 04:04am
@Syd, Availability of clean water, toilets etc are vital to attract tourists and visits.
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Har
May 03, 2019 05:28am
If you want to see the tourists just visit Istanbul and foreign exchange in every corner and gold hanging everywhere. Dubai is second example. Agar wakat karts wafa Aja Karachi Dubai hota.
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Peace
May 03, 2019 05:29am
What happened to Hindu temples? Show some pictures
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sanjay
May 03, 2019 05:35am
Pakistan's problems are mostly political. If you had a democratically elected government calling the shots rather than the army you could have focused on many other sectors in addition to tourism.
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Awalmir
May 03, 2019 06:47am
You have to build internal security first before inviting tourists to come in numbers. Otherwise the same thing will happen that happened to Daniel Pearl and others. Pakistan is not ready for mass tourism right now.
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Think
May 03, 2019 08:35am
Foreign travellers visit countries to see their original culture and heritage. In the case of Pakistan, there is no such thing as the people have converted to a foreign culture and pretend to be arabs. When people of a country have no pride in their own original heritage, how can you expect foreign tourists? If they want to see Arab culture, they will go to the middle east.
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Hemant
May 03, 2019 08:41am
No of footfalls should be the way to analyse as GDP percentage could be misleading.
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Human
May 03, 2019 09:13am
@Tariq, Lahore, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, are major example of attracting tourists from all over the world, their economy has grown from scratch as soon as they focused on tourism. Please prepare a team of young professional & arrange their visit to major tourist attraction of these countries, they can learn a lot & same can be implemented in Pakistan. Batu Caves in Malaysia attracts so many tourist from all over the world, Cuchy Tunnels in Vietnam is most popular destination among entire European, Crocodile Park in Thailand is always crowded with tourists, please visit these places & understand how to en cash your rich heritage.
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Sridhar Raghunath Rao
May 03, 2019 09:25am
A highly analytical and practical approach to the tourism potential God has bountifuly bestowed the country with natural resources and rich culture which can be advantageously utilized
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AM
May 03, 2019 09:38am
Similar for Katas raj, Himlaj mata and Gor Khatri temple tourism for Hindus. Thousands, if not millions, are eager to visits their ancestral places in Rawalpindi, Lahore, Multan, Muzaffarabad and Peshawar. Hikers would be ready to visit hstoric Swat, Hunza, kalash valley, even Nanga Parbat. Only you need to open the door.
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Kamran Niazi
May 03, 2019 10:52am
I recently visited Turkey, and i am impressed the way they flourished tourism in there country. There are many ways we can work on tourism and gain good GDP, only we need true passionate people to wotk on it.
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Neha
May 03, 2019 12:40pm
If historical sites are preserved they attract tourists, nobody wants to see derelict shrines lying deserted. Pakistan is uncomfortable with its own past and hence ignores it's relics. If these sites are developed first domestic tourism will start and gradually expand to foreign tourists.
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Tyagi
May 03, 2019 01:41pm
I am an Indian Hindu. I would love to visit the Indus Valley Civilization sites like Harappa and Mohenjodaro. We do have some of them here in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Haryana. But would be lovely to see the sites now on the other side as well.
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Ga
May 03, 2019 05:10pm
Partly the ineffective tourism ministry and partly the war in Afghanistan that resulted in adverse media for the country unchallenged by our government. Vloggers are the new hippie trail that are slowly trying to revive the image.
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abhi9
May 03, 2019 05:35pm
Indian travellers to spend $136 billion in three years and are the current jet setters. If Pakistan just works on improving the relations and its tourist sites, I am sure they can capture some of that pie.
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Realtruth
May 03, 2019 05:44pm
We and you have everything but trust.
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Udayan MAJUMDAR
May 03, 2019 05:59pm
Nice article...
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Javelin
May 03, 2019 09:09pm
@Shehzad, .....at least we should throw trash everywhere..... Are you sure you meant this?
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Krishnar
May 03, 2019 10:14pm
@KhanRA, so what about Hindus diaspora?
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A Friend from India
May 03, 2019 10:22pm
@Kuku, I agree .... Uniquely Placed for Transit to Central Asia and Beyond..... after years of waiting for the opportunity..... India ultimately had to make Charbahar. So much opportunity for Trade with Afghanistan for both India and Pakistan.... but because of the Strategic Grip..... Zero for all.
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A Friend from India
May 03, 2019 10:27pm
Unfortunately ... cant talk to Imran ... as he wants Kashmir discussed in every sentence. Kashmir will always be India - nothing to discuss.... only (personally) hope status quo becomes permanent for now. Dont want the other part of KASHMIR - with the indoctrinated population,,,, Please Keep them.
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Welcome
May 03, 2019 10:27pm
@Rohit, Saudi Arabia!
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Fazal Karim
May 04, 2019 07:06am
Not only security its perception has to be improved to world standard. Visitors do not feel secure if they see police and security persons with arms at every corner. We must en devour to create an environment where there is no need for armed security personnel.
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Always Indian
May 04, 2019 09:42am
@ravi, and 1200 million Indians would love to visit a peaceful and friendly Pakistan .... and eat Pakistani food and buy Pakistani clothes and jewellery .... but not if Kashmir is the Price....
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Salman Ahmad
May 04, 2019 12:02pm
Location of Pakistan is very friendly, the country is surrounded by other cultures , the political instability and terrorism have ruined the promotion of tourism specially in Northern areas, I hope, Pakistan will curb the destabilizing elements soon
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sdatta
May 04, 2019 12:31pm
@Moltke the Elder, very well said, hit the nail on the head
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R S Chakravarti
May 04, 2019 12:43pm
@KhanRA, Not Hindus? Does this reveal a mindset?
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Echs
May 05, 2019 12:56pm
@Singh, Is it possible?
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Irfan
May 05, 2019 01:24pm
Good article.we should declare Nankana sahib an international city like Vatican.
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Akram
May 05, 2019 03:11pm
excellent scientific analysis of the issue and its potential resolution. What is shocking is why have such regulatory issues been addressed by past governments. However we should certainly look to unlock this potential. I have been to many countries in the world, undoubtedly Pakistan has probably the most potential of them all. I hope someone from PTI is reading this article and looking to take action.
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Akram
May 05, 2019 03:24pm
@Tyagi, I have been to Moenjadaro I recommend you go if you like history. The amazing part is 95% of it is still unexcavated, but it is a real tourist find for those interested in history. Did you know they had the maths/geometry capability to build straight roads, thousands of years before the europeans. check out pictures online.
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