THE government’s approach towards reviving tourism in Pakistan appears confused and riddled with contradictions. Barely a month after Prime Minister Imran Khan announced the reopening of the tourism sector — an inexplicable move given the rising numbers of Covid-19 cases in the country — PTDC motels in the north have been closed and employees sacked. Incidentally, Mr Khan had also pointed to potential joblessness in the tourism sector as being a factor in its reopening. According to the notification issued, the federal government and the PTDC board of directors were forced to take the step “due to continuous and irreparable financial losses” suffered by the organisation. Around 25 motels and 300 employees have been affected by this decision; six ‘sick’ PTDC motels and restaurants were shuttered in March last year.
A member of the National Tourism Corporation Board, under which the PTDC functions, has said that the government would focus exclusively on promoting travel to this country and the now closed properties will be privatised. While Pakistan’s tourism industry can barely even be described as a fledgling one — at least from the international perspective — its wealth of scenic landscapes, particularly its stunning mountain vistas in the north, has increasingly been getting noticed. The British Backpacker Society ranked Pakistan as its top travel destination for 2018, and last year Forbes termed it “one of the coolest countries to visit”. Unfortunately, the government failed to build on that momentum and goodwill, even though the prime minister has often correctly cited the potential for tourism to become a major source of foreign exchange. Even as recently as December 2019, Wanderlust, the UK travel magazine, singled out Pakistan as its “hot list destination” for 2020. The pandemic, of course, has derailed tourism everywhere.
Nevertheless, many mountains need to be climbed before Pakistan can become a preferred international travel destination. Its image has long suffered on account of extremist violence within its borders. The murder of foreign climbers by militants in Gilgit-Baltistan in 2013 was the last nail in the coffin. Although militancy has been crushed and law and order restored, it will take sustained multidimensional efforts to attract international tourists to Pakistan’s shores. According to the Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2019, the country is the least competitive in South Asia in this sector. Reducing visa-processing times and easing restrictions on movement of foreign visitors are sensible measures, but the tourism infrastructure is far from robust and does not inspire the kind of confidence that international travellers look for. In fact, the PTDC motels offered decent budget accommodation, but that too is now off the table. Hosting summits with an array of foreign travel influencers before getting the building blocks in place — such as a hassle-free method for visitors to travel within the country — is akin to putting the cart before the horse.
Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2020