EVEN though the Gandhara Trail was earlier cancelled due to the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, with the number of cases steadily rising in the country in April, the KP government has now ‘hinted’ at kick-starting the much-anticipated tourism initiative after Eidul Azha. This venture would see tour operators take hundreds of tourists and pilgrims to Buddhist sites in Taxila, Swabi, Peshawar, Khyber, Mardan and Swat. It would undoubtedly be a wonderful way of highlighting Pakistan’s rich and diverse heritage. One hopes to see the Gandhara Trail operate smoothly and successfully in the coming months, and to see tourism reopening, albeit in small and organised pockets. There is no doubt that the global tourism sector has been badly hit due to the pandemic, subsequent lockdowns and the closing of borders.
Pakistan may not be an international hub for tourism, but it has similarly suffered, especially at a time when efforts were underway to increase travel to and within the country. According to a World Bank policy brief on tourism in South Asia, Pakistan could suffer a loss of $3.64bn due to the pandemic, jeopardising around 880,000 jobs in the tourism sector. Now, as the number of Covid-19 cases seems to be on the decline in Pakistan, small gatherings in open spaces, following all SOPs can perhaps be considered in the months ahead. However, even if there is some reason for optimism, the authorities must remain cautious, as the threat posed by the virus is far from over. For instance, it has also been reported that during the Eid holidays, thousands of tourists were barred from entering Swat and Manshera, leading to a long queue of cars at the entry points. This shows that there is still some distance to go before the situation can return to normal. The days following Eid and Muharram will be crucial in gauging the threat from the virus, and whether or not it is safe to begin reopening the tourism sector.
Published in Dawn, August 5th, 2020