Pakistani online travel platform raises $7.5 million, plans Saudi Arabia expansion

Employees of a local e-ticketing and travel platform, Bookme.pk, pose for a photograph in Lahore, Pakistan, on December 8, 2021. (Photo courtesy: Bookme.pk)
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Updated 09 December 2021
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Pakistani online travel platform raises $7.5 million, plans Saudi Arabia expansion

  • The CEO of Bookme.pk says the company intends to utilize the money to digitize small vans in Pakistani cities
  • Venture capital companies believe Pakistan's first completely cashless travel and ticketing platform can emerge as a ‘unicorn’

KARACHI: A Lahore-based startup company that aims to provide a convenient travel and ticketing platform to millions of users said on Thursday it wanted to expand its outreach to Saudi Arabia and Myanmar after successfully closing a $7.5 million Series A funding round.

Bookme.pk plans to offer people online bookings for intercity buses, airlines, hotels and events in Pakistan.

The Series A round was co-led by Zayn Capital, Lakson Venture Capital and UAE-based Hayaat Global with the participation of BY Ventures and Jabbar Internet Group, New York-based Millville Opportunities and Silicon Valley-based Mentor’s Fund.

The Pakistani firm plans to utilize the funding to digitize buses in small cities and expand its outreach beyond the country’s borders.

“We are planning to expand our outreach to Saudi Arabia and Myanmar in the coming year,” Faizan Aslam, chief executive officer and founder of the company, told Arab News.

Established in 2014, Bookme.pk claims to be the first completely cashless platform in Pakistan with the highest number of day-to-day digital transactions from banks and payment gateways.

The startup has digitized Pakistan’s paper-based transport and travel sector to create a plug and play distribution system that interconnects reservation systems of intercity buses, domestic and international airlines along with hotels and events.

“So far we have digitized companies that are operating big buses in major cities,” Aslam said. “Now we are focusing on digitizing small vans that drive around without any specified time schedule in small cities.”

Bookme.pk has partnered with Pakistan’s leading mobile wallet platforms to offer its customers BNPL (book now, pay later) services, leveraging historical data and spending patterns for more than six million customers, a statement issued by the startup said.

The intercity bus segment has grown significantly in Pakistan as road infrastructure and connectivity has improved throughout the country due to massive infrastructure investments over the last five years.

In addition to that, major Pakistani urban centers have a large number of rural migrants, increasing demand for bus travel for their work-related commutes.

“We are thrilled to continue to invest in Bookme and firmly believe that the Series A funding will allow it to expand operations, increase market share and transform the travel and ticketing space in the country,” Babar Lakhani, managing partner of Lakson Venture Capital, said.

Zayn Capital, which co-led the funding round, maintained the Pakistani startup had the potential to become a “unicorn,” a term used for companies with a valuation of $1 billion or above.

“We have followed Bookme’s journey from the seed stage to see it scale into one of the leading platforms in Pakistan,” Faisal Aftab, co-founder and managing partner of Zayn Capital Frontier Fund, said, adding: “We are extremely proud to be a continued part of their journey as we believe this team is capable of building a unicorn.”

“BookMe has one of the most robust e-ticketing platforms because of its focused approach and customer centricity,” Mohammed Ikhlaq, director of Hayaat Global, was quoted as saying in the statement circulated by the startup. “We are delighted to play a role in their growth story and plans, and we fully expect them to continue scaling new peaks as the digital economy deepens in Pakistan.”

Pakistani startups have raised more than $300 million so far in 2021.

The country has witnessed an increase in the number of internet users from 20 million in 2015 to over 100 million in 2021.


Leading VPN brand raises censorship concerns as Pakistan faces fifth Internet restriction in 2024

Updated 23 February 2024
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Leading VPN brand raises censorship concerns as Pakistan faces fifth Internet restriction in 2024

  • Surfshark says Pakistan willing to take any measure ‘to cut citizens off from each other and the rest of the world’
  • It mentions a spike in censorship, saying Pakistan witnessed four Internet restrictions in 2023 and three in 2022

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s recent restriction on social media platform X marks the country’s 5th Internet restriction in 2024 alone, said a leading virtual network (VPN) brand on Friday, raising concerns about growing Internet censorship in the country.
The social networking website has largely remained inaccessible to users in Pakistan for nearly a week since a senior bureaucrat last Saturday accused the country’s chief justice and top election commission official of rigging the controversial February 8 election.
The blockage has raised widespread concerns about democratic expression and media freedom, with the United States and several international organizations urging the government to provide unhindered Internet access to people.
Surfshark, a leading VPN brand, said Pakistan witnessed three restrictions in February that were “directly related to the election, while the remaining two happened in January during virtual events organized by the opposition [Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party].”
“These new cases mark a worrying spike in Internet censorship in Pakistan,” it said in a statement. “2024 has only started but has already exceeded both 2023 and 2022 in new restriction count — there were 4 Internet restrictions in 2023 and 3 in 2022.”
It added Surfshark had witnessed an increase in VPN usage in Pakistan since February 18.
“Daily new user acquisition rates have grown three to four times compared to the previous month, indicating a growing reliance on these services for Internet access and privacy,” it added.
The company noted that Pakistan had imposed restrictions on VPNs which could lead to difficulties when connecting to the circumvention tools.
“Pakistan’s Internet censorship efforts have been alarmingly increasing, and 2024 may be a record year for the country regarding Internet restrictions,” Lina Survila, Surfshark spokeswoman, said. “With reports of VPN restrictions coming to light as well, it seems that the country is prepared to take any means necessary to cut its citizens off from each other and the rest of the world.”
Earlier, NetBlocks, an Internet monitor based in the United Kingdom, said that restriction on platform X had entered the sixth day, making Pakistan join “a handful of countries that ban access to international social media platforms.”


Ex-PM Khan’s party says no intention to compromise Pakistan’s economic interests in letter to IMF

Updated 23 February 2024
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Ex-PM Khan’s party says no intention to compromise Pakistan’s economic interests in letter to IMF

  • Khan’s legal team said he wanted to write a letter to the international lender, asking it to seek election audit
  • Khan’s party says it cannot damage the country’s economy, recalls developing welfare plans for its people

ISLAMABAD: A top Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party leader on Friday denied speculations that former prime minister Imran Khan wanted to compromise the country’s economic interests to make political gains in a letter to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), saying his party would never work against Pakistan.
The statement came a day after an IMF spokesperson told the media that the international lender did not want to comment on political developments in Pakistan in the wake of the general elections earlier this month which Khan’s party said were heavily rigged.
Prior to that, Khan’s legal team said he would send a letter to the IMF, which helped stabilize Pakistan’s economy when it was nearing default, requesting its officials to seek an independent audit of the February 8 national polls.
Pakistan is already under a short-term IMF loan program that is due to expire next month. The newly elected government is expected to negotiate yet another bailout package with the international lending agency in the coming months.
“We will not do anything that poses a threat to the state, causes harm to the state or damages the country’s economy,” Barrister Gohar Khan, PTI’s top leader in Khan’s absence, told a group of journalists in Rawalpindi. “The letter will be shared with you. You can read it.”
“Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has developed projects for the welfare of the people,” he continued. “It brought investment to Pakistan [during its tenure].”
Former PM Khan has faced legal challenges since he was ousted from power in a no-confidence vote in April 2022. He has been in prison after being convicted on corruption and other charges since August last year.
Another high-profile PTI leader, Barrister Ali Zafar, also tried to defend Khan’s decision to write to the IMF, saying Pakistan always came first and foremost for his party.
“We believe that Pakistan should continue to engage with IMF in order to ensure financial discipline, good governance and economic stability which is critical for the prosperity of the people of Pakistan,” he said in a statement.
“While we will continue to support all steps in this direction taken for the benefit of the country and in national interest, PTI will continue its struggle for democracy and raise its voice at all forums and expect the international community’s support,” he added.
According to media reports, Pakistan plans to get a new IMF loan of at least $6 billion, with the talks likely to begin in March or April.


International drivers from Saudi Arabia, Iran, US, rev up for Pakistan Cholistan Desert Rally

Updated 23 February 2024
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International drivers from Saudi Arabia, Iran, US, rev up for Pakistan Cholistan Desert Rally

  • The annual 19th Cholistan Desert Jeep Rally started in Bahawalpur this week
  • Over 150 racing enthusiasts from Pakistan and abroad are participating this year

ISLAMABAD: The annual 19th Cholistan Desert Jeep Rally started in Bahawalpur this week, with over 150 racing enthusiasts from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and other countries participating.

The Cholistan Desert in southern Punjab forms part of the Greater Thar Desert, which extends to Pakistan’s southern Sindh province and the Indian state of Rajasthan. Cholistan was once a center for caravan trade, leading to the construction of numerous forts in the medieval period to protect trade routes, of which the Derawar Fort in Bahawalpur is the best-preserved example.

The 19th edition of the desert rally, which spreads over 500 kilometers, started on Tuesday. Drivers from Saudi Arabia, the UK, Afghanistan, Iran, and the US are participating this year, Managing Director of Tourism Development Corporation of Punjab (TDCP) Humaira Akram told state-run APP.

“The women’s category has been made more active,” the official said. “The event will highlight the history and culture of the Cholistan Desert, the historical palaces of Bahawalpur, historical buildings, historical backgrounds, tourism, and culture through beautiful cultural dances in addition to light and sound shows.”

A qualifying round was held in Cholistan on February 22, followed by the first round of prepared cars on February 23, and a stock category race along with a dirt bike race on February 24, followed by a cultural show.

“On February 25, the prepared category race and truck race will take place, followed by the prize distribution ceremony,” Additional Deputy Commissioner Headquarters Sumera Rabani told media. 

“The Cholistan Fort will be adorned with beautiful decorations during the Cholistan Rally. The Sports Department will organize competitions including Kabaddi, traditional wrestling, volleyball, and tug of war.”


Pakistan Supreme Court defends ruling on minorities after backlash

Updated 23 February 2024
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Pakistan Supreme Court defends ruling on minorities after backlash

  • Ruling by chief justice related to blasphemy has sparked online backlash, led to thinly veiled death threats
  • CJ Qazi Faez Isa ordered the release of a man from Ahmadi sect, considered heretical by Muslim scholars

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s Supreme Court has defended its top judge after a ruling he issued related to blasphemy that sparked an online backlash and led to thinly veiled death threats.

The campaign targeting Supreme Court Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa began after he ordered the release of a man from the Ahmadi religious sect, considered heretical by hard-line Muslim scholars.

The man had been accused of disseminating a forbidden Ahmadi text, which firebrand clerics consider tantamount to blasphemy, a hot-button issue in Muslim-majority Pakistan where even unproven allegations of offending Islam have sparked violence.

The Supreme Court issued a statement on Thursday evening defending the ruling, denying that it went against the Islamic constitution.

“This impression is absolutely wrong,” it said. “The organized campaign against judiciary and judges is unfortunate.”

Isa’s ruling first went unnoticed two weeks ago, before it was highlighted by social media accounts linked to the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan party which has been behind violent anti-blasphemy protests.

The Pakistani chapter of the Taliban militant group — known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — called Isa “an enemy of Islam” and “a damned man.”

Ahmadis have been discriminated against and persecuted for decades in Pakistan. The second amendment of Pakistan’s constitution, made in 1974, declares Ahmadis non-Muslims. The law also prohibits them from professing to be Muslims or spreading their faith, and allows the death penalty for those found guilty of insulting Islam.

In his judgment, Isa ruled that according to the constituion, “every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion.”

“Freedom of faith is one of the fundamental tenets of Islam. But sadly, in matters of religion, tempers flare up and the Qur’anic mandate is forsaken,” he added.

He also said the book allegedly disseminated by the accused had not been outlawed at the time of the alleged crime in 2019.

Cleric Fazlur Rehman, the influential leader of the conservative religious party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, said Isa’s reasoning was “false and based on bad intentions.”

In 2011, the governor of eastern Punjab province was killed by his own bodyguard after calling for reforms to the stringent blasphemy laws.


Pakistani students show solidarity with Gazan children with exhibition of paintings and poems 

Updated 23 February 2024
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Pakistani students show solidarity with Gazan children with exhibition of paintings and poems 

  • Event organized by Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad with over 120 children participating 
  • Foreign diplomats, academics and dignitaries appreciate Pakistani students for taking a stand 

ISLAMABAD: Diplomats and envoys from various countries on Thursday condemned Israel for its “blatant and bold” war against Palestinians, as they attended an exhibition of poems and paintings by Pakistani students in support of children in Gaza.

The Institute of Strategic Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank, organized the event in which over 120 children aged between 5-12 from five schools in Islamabad took part. 

Almost 30,000 people have been killed in Palestine since Israel launched an aerial bombing and ground offensive campaign after Oct. 7 following a Hamas attack on Israel. About 70 percent of those who have been killed are women, 7,900, and children, 12,450. The head of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) told the United Nations Security Council on Thursday that medical teams in the Gaza Strip have come up with a new acronym, WCNSF, wounded child, no surviving family.

Despite calls from foreign governments and peace activists worldwide, Israel has vowed not to stop its bombing of the densely populated territory until it destroys the Palestinian group Hamas.

“This message given by Pakistani children should show the world that no one will forget Gaza and will not accept their dual standards,” Brian Witbooi, a counselor at the South African High Commission in Pakistan, told Arab News.

“The atrocities in Gaza are blatant and bold and for the entire world to see,“

Palestine’s ambassador to Pakistan, Ahmed Jawad A.A. Rabei, said the message of support from Pakistani children to the Palestinian people “means a lot to them.”

“They [Pakistani children] draw and write many important things that came from the heart, conveying that you [Palestinians] are not alone, we stand with you, and, God willing, we will witness your freedom,” he told Arab News. 

“I am very proud to see the hope for Palestinians, its children, students here [in Pakistan], and I am very proud of you in what you drew and wrote for children in Gaza.”

Ambassador of Morocco to Pakistan, Mohamed Karmoune, said Pakistanis’ support for Palestinians transcended generations.

“They [Pakistani children] are the future of the Muslim world and their support means a lot for the Palestinian children who are suffering inhuman violence,” he told Arab News.

 Zainab Mohmand, a grade five student, said she had written a poem for children in Gaza, who were on the brink of starvation. 

“The children of Gaza are living in such a hard situation,” she said. “They don’t have enough water to drink, they don’t have enough food. So, I wrote about this so that they can somehow get out of this situation.”