Your next tourist stop: Pakistan
In 2018, over 1.9 million international tourists visited Pakistan. This may not seem like much for a country of over 200 million but it is an astonishing four-fold increase in the number of tourists from just over half a million in 2015.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, himself an avid traveller across the country, is often tweeting scenic pictures from Pakistan these days and talking about how tourism will dramatically change the country. In the first 100 days of 2019 alone, he has radically changed the country’s dissuasive visa regime, allowing quick, no-fuss e-visas for 175 countries and on-arrival visas to visitors from 50 countries. He also showcased Pakistan as a hot tourism destination at an international conference in Islamabad this month and has headed several meetings designed to give a fillip to the tourism sector.
So, what are Pakistan’s prospects as one of the world’s newest and hottest tourist destinations and how will it affect the country? For starters, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, Pakistan’s tourism receipts stood at nearly one trillion rupees in 2017, or almost one-fourth of the total tax receipts and a healthy 2.9% of GDP. This is forecast to nearly double in 10 years. Tourism-linked jobs numbered 1.4 million in 2017 and are expected to go up to well over two million soon.
Pakistan has been a late-comer to the economic and socio-political benefits of tourism. For most parts of the new millennium, tourism has been among the top three earners of national revenue for Asian tourist destinations of choice like Thailand, Malaysia, China, India and Indonesia. As these countries brought in the bulk of between 154- 323 million tourists to Asia over the past decade, Pakistan in the same period grappled with an image problem because of a security and law and order problem caused mainly by terror-related violence. Over 70,000 have been killed in the country due to terrorism, according to official counts, causing Pakistan over $50 billion in opportunity costs.
Things started to change around 2013 with the first ever transfer of power among two elected governments in Pakistan’s history. Democracy gradually stabilized even as politics remained fractious. Since then the country has opened up socially and culturally and the security situation has improved due to military operations in areas that militants previously used as safe havens. International and national festivals, tournaments and conferences are now routine. Domestic tourism is booming. New domestic airlines have come online and train routes have been expanded. The road infrastructure has dramatically improved. Though PM Khan wants more people in Pakistan to go sightseeing, it was his predecessor and political foe Nawaz Sharif for whom developing world standard communications infrastructure was an obsession. He delivered.
Fitness-mad and outdoorsy PM Khan is the perfect Pakistani to champion this through proactive policies and implementation. Along with regular tweets, he often peppers his official speeches with recommendations for tourism sites. How many national leaders do that?
A natural corollary to the steadily improving tourism environment in Pakistan was seeking fulfilment of the potential of international tourism. Fitness-mad and outdoorsy PM Khan is the perfect Pakistani to champion this through proactive policies and implementation. Along with regular tweets, he often peppers his official speeches with recommendations for tourism sites. How many national leaders do that?
But what does Pakistan offer international visitors in terms of attractions? For starters, welcomes are important, and Pakistanis are very hospitable – everyone wants to help out and assist. The country is multicultural to the core and visitors can expect to encounter different ethnicities and nationalities in most places, adding to the anthropological experience.
The country’s scenic mountainous north in Gilgit-Baltistan is fabled. Five of the 15 highest peaks in the world, including the second tallest, K-2, are in Pakistan. The country was part of the British Raj, so most people have a somewhat basic grasp of English and by learning a couple of phrases in Urdu, visitors can completely win over their Pakistani hosts too.
Pakistan was part of the ancient Silk Route that connects Central and South Asia and its revival — and tourists can partake in its ancient glories, tracing the footsteps of the likes of one of the greatest explorers of the world, Ibn-e-Battuta, and even Macedonian Alexander the Great. Or they can explore the Buddhist heritage Gandhara trail in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, or the majestic Mughal-era forests, castles and gardens in Punjab as well as the holiest sites for Sikhs in the world in the same province.
Or maybe visitors can immerse themselves in the noisy chaos of Pakistan’s busiest city Karachi on the rim of the Indian Ocean, stretching out its beachline to the beguiling pristine shores of Balochistan running over hundreds of kilometres. The Beatles and the first men on the moon, including Neil Armstrong, have been here, as have Barack Obama in his student days and Che Guevara and Fidel Castro in their heyday. So why shouldn’t you be next? Do visit!