Pakistan needs to target the Gulf tourism market
Much has been said about the tourism potential of Pakistan and its scenic landscapes. With a much improved national security situation, the time seems ripe to develop tourist hubs into international tourist resorts across Pakistan facilitated by the government which has already relaxed a needlessly strict visa system that’s been in place for years.
The government has also teamed up with international travel influencers and vloggers to project Pakistan as an international tourist destination. The initiative has been met with mixed reviews. On the one hand, it has fulfilled its purpose and generated a great deal of excitement on social media, especially for international audiences. But on the other hand, skeptics have said the government initiative was not entirely inclusive or in tune with the very societal sensitivities that clash with the ideas of tourists who come to Pakistan from the West.
The latter assessment does carry some weight. Along with the West, the government must also aim to attract international tourists that share the same cultural and religious ideologies with their hosts, for example, the larger Muslim world and in particular tourists from the Middle East.
Within the Middle East, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have emerged as one of the fastest growing tourist generating regions and constituted a major chunk of the total international tourism expenditure from the Middle East. A 2017 report commissioned by the World Tourism Organization and European Travel Commission revealed that the per-capita spending on international tourism from the GCC region was 6.5 times higher as compared to the global average.
The overall expenditure incurred by these tourists was calculated to be around $60 billion, which marks a $20 billion jump from the 2010 figures, even though the report shows that tourists from these countries preferred European countries owing to their historical landmarks, diversity and common visa regime. Yet the report has also indicated some barriers that impinge upon their travel experience in Europe. Some of these impediments include safety and security concerns, high costs of traveling and accommodation, language barriers, unavailability of halal food and differing cultural sensitivities.
These factors have compelled Gulf tourists to look for alternate travel destinations and one of the obvious choices has become Turkey, a country that has successfully used its soft power resources, specifically its local television series to promote its tourist attractions. Additionally, shared religious and cultural sensitivities alongside its geographical proximity have further made Turkey a favorite destination amongst Gulf tourists. The case of Malaysia is similar and has seen an upsurge of Gulf tourists in recent years.
Pakistan and Arab Gulf states have long standing political ties and a large number of Pakistani expats have been working in these countries which makes them well versed in their culture, traditions and language.
On a competitive scale, Pakistan does quite well. It has a diverse range of resorts ranging from the hill stations and orchards of Swat to the high altitude plains of Deosai, and the mesmerizing lakes of Gilgit Baltistan. Five of the fourteen highest mountains in the world are in Pakistan. Most tourist destinations specifically in the Northern areas have remained virtually untouched and can be categorized as virgin territories. An interest in discovering new and unexplored destinations, as well as niche adventure holidays, have also been a driving factor in outbound tourism from the Gulf and this makes these picturesque spots ideal for this target group.
Yet, without upgrading existing infrastructure particularly in the Gilgit Baltistan region, attracting a large numbers of international tourists will remain a tough ask.
In the Pakistani case, wooing tourists from Gulf nations is significant in multiple ways. Pakistan and Arab Gulf states have long standing political ties and a large number of Pakistani expats have been working in these countries which makes them well versed in their culture, traditions and language.
With Gulf countries increasingly adopting workforce localization programs, a significant number of Pakistani expats have returned. A good chunk of these expats have also worked in the hospitality sector in these Gulf States. So not only can Gulf tourism result in generating much needed revenue, it can also be helpful in creating job opportunities for these returnees. In this manner, government and private organizations can utilize the expertise of these former expats in developing the country’s hospitality and travel industry.
The government’s decision to issue visas on arrival to citizens of UAE is a welcome development and this facility should be extended to the citizens of all Gulf states.
If Pakistan needs to accentuate its tourism potential, it must seriously entertain its most feasible option: aim wholeheartedly at the Gulf.