PAKISTAN is back on the world map. Or at least it’s trying hard to be. The government’s push to revive the tourism industry is laudable. But the real test for the PTI is whether it can harness its current energy to develop a truly sustainable tourism industry.
Promoting tourism is a no-brainer. The sector generates direct and indirect employment, boosts GDP, and enhances a country’s soft power. Economists Hina Shaikh and Nazish Afraz have estimated that if tourism contributed the equivalent to Pakistan’s GDP as world averages, it would amount to $3.5 billion, a similar value to Pakistan’s largest export item, cotton.
So far the government has adopted a holistic, well-considered strategy. It has launched a National Tourism Coordination Board, eased visa and NOC regimes, offered tax incentives to the tourism sector, and budgeted for marketing campaigns and infrastructure development. And while the emphasis is on attracting tourists to Pakistan’s stunning mountainous areas — a good pitch given that the British Backpacker Society ranked Pakistan as the world’s top adventure travel destination last year — sensible efforts are also under way to promote religious and cultural tourism.
Even the best plan will backfire if not handled well.
Many experts have already written about the dangers of an overly aggressive tourism initiative. The rush to build infrastructure with an eye to facilitating tourism often leads to the degradation of the very sites tourists want to visit. For example, Rina Saeed Khan has written about the need to prevent Naltar — which is soon to become more accessible— from suffering the same fate as Babusar Pass, where trees were felled to make way for roads and guesthouses.
In the context of growing global awareness of climate change, the tourists most likely to visit Pakistan are also likely to care deeply about environmental issues. The slightest hint that their travel may contribute to the degradation of natural habitat would serve as a deterrent.
If for no other reason, then, the government has to ensure that all tourism-related infrastructure initiatives are sustainable as per the highest international standards. This means the government will have to balance the expectations of domestic tourists (who will be keen to find large concrete guest houses and glitzy restaurants at scenic locations) with the ethics and sensibilities of international tourists, particularly adventure tourists.
This does not mean that domestic tourists should be sidelined. Our domestic tourism industry is estimated to be 50 million people compared to the 3m or so international tourists who will pass through the country in a good year. Locals must be prioritised. But this means that the government’s initiative must include a domestic marketing campaign that educates local travellers and focuses on the need for preservation and conservation of our natural habitat and cultural heritage. Even the best strategy will backfire if not managed well. Consider the impact on Nepali tourism of the death toll on Everest this year, largely linked to the high number of climbing permits issued along with poor regulation of sherpas. Articles about the Everest deaths has included quotes from travellers vowing never to return.
Good management and planning requires buy-in at all levels, and to ensure that the government must make its tourism strategy inclusive. The current focus on scenic, northern areas and religious tourism risks creating provincial tensions as certain regions, particularly KP, Gilgit-Baltistan and Punjab, are poised to reap the most benefits. The national parks, coastal areas, and ancient sites of southern provinces are as marvellous as the country’s northern offerings, and should not be overlooked.
The PTI will also have to pay heed to aspects that are harder to control, but can be addressed through media messaging and the proactive inclusion of local communities. For instance, it is ironic that the prime minister wants to showcase Pakistan’s non-Islamic heritage at a time when religious nationalism, intolerance and isolationism are soaring among the local population.
Sponsored bloggers who have recently visited Pakistan have already raised questions about the potential prickliness of culture clashes between foreigners and locals. It is essential that the government conceive of its strategy as an opportunity to open up Pakistani minds to the outside world, as well as vice versa. If the PTI’s tourism drive is successful, and the influx of international tourists increases, we should also be prepared to tackle difficult questions about our national identity. To highlight our cultural heritage, we will have to acknowledge that this is a country shaped by Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, thinkers, artists, writers, architects, rebels. Meaningful engagement with the history of many of our prized sites will certainly raise these complexities. How can we externally promote that version of ourselves that we internally seek to stifle?
Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2019