PAKISTAN has enormous potential for growing tourism. Endowed with spectacular mountain ranges, lush green valleys, pristine beaches, ancient civilisations, splendid Mughal architectural heritage and welcoming people, the country has so much to offer tourists. Yet successive governments have failed to develop this potential into a robust industry. Pakistan was never a preferred destination for international tourists. Still, it attracted a good number of low-budget travellers, as well as adventure and religious tourists from around the world despite underdeveloped hospitality services and poor transport infrastructure. However, their numbers fell over the last three decades as the security situation deteriorated. The killings of foreign climbers by militants in Gilgit-Baltistan in 2013 proved to be the proverbial last nail in the coffin.
No doubt, international tourist arrivals and receipts have increased in the last couple of years with improvement in law and order. Yet the tourism industry continues to lag far behind other countries in the region. A recent Travel and Tourism Competitive Report of the World Economic Forum points out that Pakistan remains the least competitive country in South Asia when it comes to travel and tourism and places it at the bottom of the Asia-Pacific Travel and Tourism Competitive Index 2019. In a ranking of 140 countries, Pakistan came in at 121 this year, three notches up from its previous position of 124 in 2017. The report does acknowledge that Pakistan is the “most improved country in terms of human resources and labour market”, but insists that it still requires “substantial improvements in competitiveness to move up in rank and out of the bottom quartile”. A thriving tourism industry can have significant impact on a country’s economic growth. Tourism has been a major source of foreign exchange revenues for developing countries like Egypt and Thailand, and provided them the foundation to build their economies. Since its inception, the Imran Khan government has emphasised the importance of developing a robust tourism sector, but not much has been done so far. Indeed, measures such as the easing of visa processing times and relaxation of restrictions on foreign travellers wanting to visit certain parts of the country will go a long way in attracting them. But that is not enough. The government needs to go further in giving tourists freer access to more far-flung areas and offer incentives for private capital to provide infrastructure and hospitality services to realise the true economic potential of this industry.
Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2019