GOING by the findings of a recent Gallup Pakistan report, tourism in the country is on the path of revival. According to the report that relies heavily on federal and provincial data, tourist traffic to cultural sites has gone up from 1.6m visits in 2014 to 6.6m in 2018, with Punjab contributing about 95pc to this growth. The spike in the visitors is primarily triggered by domestic tourism. But there’s also a visible uptick in the number of foreign travellers — the figure has doubled for museums and cultural sites. The growth is very encouraging. Many would take this increase in foreign visits as an indication that Pakistan is becoming a popular destination for foreigners; these figures have prompted the authors of the report to suggest that “tourism could be a potential game changer for the country’s struggling economy”. But that may be an overly optimistic assessment — at least at this point — even though the country has so much to offer to tourists in terms of geographical diversity and cultural heritage.
For starters, take the overall negative perception of Pakistan internationally, and the many concerns that foreigners have vis-à-vis security in the country. Although the government has time and again expressed its resolve to make Pakistan a ‘heaven for foreign tourists’, it has done little to sell Pakistan’s image as an attractive, secure tourist destination. We failed to take advantage of the goodwill created by the British Backpacker Society that ranked Pakistan as the world’s top adventure travel destination last year, or Forbes’ description of the country as one of the “coolest places” to visit in 2019, because we could not market ourselves. Countries such as Malaysia and Thailand, on the other hand, spend millions of dollars each year on marketing their attractions to woo a continuous stream of foreign travellers. Indeed, the incumbent government has taken a few initiatives to ease travel restrictions for foreigners. But that is not enough, and there is a dire need to build on those actions to curb officialdom’s propensity to eye international travellers with suspicion. More than that, the federal government and the provinces need to develop a physical and hospitality infrastructure in places where they want to promote tourism. At present, the country remains a tourist-unfriendly place. If we want tourism to flourish, the government will have to work hard on all aspects to encourage domestic and foreign travellers. Otherwise, we can forget about a ‘heaven for tourists’.
Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2019