A new dawn for tourism
For almost three decades between the 1950s and ‘70s, Pakistan was a haven for travel and adventure seekers passing through the coveted hippie trail. Millions of hitch-hikers and back-packers entered the tribal areas in the North-West from Afghanistan and then went down the country after crossing the legendary Khyber Pass. The other western inroad came from Iran into Balochistan. But as the geo-political tectonics started shifting, the ensuing instability dried up the famous trail and the western land route from Europe to Pakistan was cut off. The fortunes of the tourism industry have remained linked to a volatile political environment in the country and the broader region, specifically Iran and Afghanistan.
Though Pakistan’s tourism potential has been widely acknowledged and domestic tourism has recently witnessed a surge in the northern areas, Pakistan earned only $22 billion through tourism in 2017. For a country of more than 240 million people with some of the most diverse landscapes and climates in the world, this a meagre amount.
In the 1990s, with improvements in infrastructure and logistics, the remote northern areas of the country became relatively accessible to the world again, and new destinations opened up for both domestic and international tourists. Mountaineers from across the world made their way to a plethora of treacherous and mighty 8000 metre peaks in the country’s north including the K-2, as well as to the scenic valleys of Swat and Galliat. But the 9/11 terrorist attacks brought the curtains down on the booming tourist enterprise once more.
As the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) insurgency started to wreak havoc across the country, the law and order situation deteriorated rapidly and many western nations issued travel advisories for Pakistan. Swat valley, by then a major tourist hub, fell into the hands of TTP terrorists and a systematic campaign to destroy major tourist resorts and infrastructure, including the famous ski resort of Malam Jabba, was carried out. In recent years, military operations against the TTP have reduced that menace to a large extent, and land has been reclaimed from the insurgents. The tourism industry in the country however, has only shown slow signs of recovery.
Foreigners looking to enter Pakistan until now have required passage through a convoluted visa process. The torturous procedural system has added constraints for anyone willing to disregard the prevalent security narrative and travel here with the picturesque regions of Azad Kashmir off-limits and similar restrictions that quell the growth of religious tourism for Sikh and Hindu pilgrims.
Though Pakistan’s tourism potential has been widely acknowledged and domestic tourism has recently witnessed a surge in the northern areas, Pakistan earned only $22 billion through tourism in 2017.
The first signs of an imminent change in travel policy became apparent when Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa discussed opening a corridor from the Indian border to the Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara in Pakistan’s eastern province of Punjab with visiting Indian politician Navjot Singh Sidhu on the swearing in ceremony of Prime Minister Imran Khan. Afterwards, both Khan and General Bajwa attended the ground breaking ceremony of the corridor. This decision indicated a determination on the part of the government and security establishment to facilitate religious tourism and to make it a source of revenue.
Building up on this initiative, the new government also introduced a new visa policy granting e-visa facilities to citizens of 175 countries and visa on arrival to 50 of those countries. The policy will also end the tedious requirements for an NOC (No-Objection Certificate) to visit Gilgit Baltistan and Azad Kashmir and puts no additional constraints on Indian origin British and American citizens. General Bajwa’s presence in the meeting that kickstarted this initiative, showed that the country’s security establishment was not only on board but also shared the need for revised entry regulations. So what necessitated such a change of heart? The answer is simple: economics.
Over the past few years Pakistan’s economy has been on a constant downturn and among others, the country’s defence expenditure has also faced fiscal pressure. Additionally, the war on terror has created a fundamentally negative discourse about Pakistan that the army will no doubt, want to correct. It is these factors that have brought the country’s civilian government and security establishment on the same page when it comes to opening up the country once more, and reclaiming some of the glory lost through the downturns of our history.
The hippie trail may never again come to life, but what is on offer in Pakistan, from the world’s greatest peaks in the north to the cultural and archeological sites in the east, might be enough to entice the adventurers of the world to visit once more.
• Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. @UmarKarim89