Tourism can be a multi-billion dollar industry in Pakistan provided there is awareness and policy on the part of stakeholders to promote the culture of tourism. A country’s image and reputation is judged on the basis of its capacity to provide basic facilities to tourists, particularly foreigners.
When India and China can earn more than $20 billion from tourism and various European countries like Switzerland, France, the UK, Italy and Greece can fetch several hundred billion dollars from tourism, why cannot Pakistan, a country blessed with enviable natural beauty? Recently, Prime Minister Imran Khan said if a country like Switzerland can earn several billion dollars from tourism, Pakistan can certainly take meaningful steps to attract tourists. But, merely by passing statements on transforming Pakistan as a hub of tourism will not make sense unless the government takes practical steps to create a culture of tourism which would require a mindset of local people, tour operators, hotels and officials attached with the ministry of tourism.
When one talks about the culture of tourism it means four major requirements.
First, the attitude and behavior of those who are supposed to provide guidance and facilities to tourists.
Second, adherence to hygiene and cleanliness at restaurants, eateries, washrooms and hotels at tourist spots. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, there is absence of hygiene and clean environment for tourists, which creates a very bad impression for both local and foreign tourists.
Third, availability of affordable accommodation and food is essential for creating a culture of tourism in Pakistan. During summer and winter tourist seasons, there is no check on the part of concerned authorities to prevent hotel owners who take advantage of the situation and charge excessive amount from tourists.
Finally, the absence of tourism culture in Pakistan has much to do with corruption and inefficiency on the part of tourism departments in various provinces of the country who are either irresponsible in their duties or lack proper training on providing maximum facilities to tourists at affordable prices. It is a pity that unlike India, China, the UAE and Sri Lanka, where there is a culture of tourism, one can observe the absence of proper work ethics and pursuance of a professional approach to attract foreign tourists. It is true that because of the reigning pandemic since early 2020, tourist industry all over the world has suffered but such a crisis should have been used as an opportunity by formulating short- and long-term policies to train those who are related to the tourism industry. In 2020 and early 2021, tourist places in Pakistan were closed and only reopened during the summer of 2021. The rush in tourist destinations during the summer of 2021 is unprecedented which led to the shortage of accommodation and overcharging of hotel accommodation.
Pakistan is blessed with beautiful tourists as well as historical and religious sites where tourists from abroad visit in large numbers. The north of Pakistan is known for its peaks, glaciers, lakes and forests where not only homegrown tourism can flourish but millions of tourists from abroad can also be attracted. Likewise, the historical sites of Texila and Mohenjo Daro can be a big draw for foreign tourists. The deserts of Tharparkar in Sindh and Cholistan in Punjab, as well as the coast of Pakistan, particularly in Balochistan, also have the potential to attract local and foreign tourists in large numbers.
If the government and other stakeholders are interested in promoting tourist industry and homegrown tourism, they must make sure that adequate facilities are provided. Policy decisions to promote the culture of tourism must take into account three major requirements.
First, the major tourist destinations like Swat, Naran, Gilgit, Hunza and Skardu must be monitored by the respective tourist departments and ministries that tourists visiting such places are provided with best facilities at affordable prices. Acts of cheating and overcharging for accommodation and meals must be eradicated. It seems, ‘tourist mafias’ in collaboration with officials deny tourists opportunities to enjoy their holidays.
Second, it is a matter of shame that the government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa has utterly failed to improve tourist infrastructure including roads. For instance, Naran is a major tourist spot and tourists who visit that place make sure that they also go to the legendry lake Saiful Muluk. But, it is shocking that there is no road from Naran to that lake and tourists are left at the mercy of ‘jeep mafia’ who subvert efforts to construct a good quality road. It is unfortunate that the PTI which has been in power in K-P since 2013 has failed to deal with the ‘jeep mafia’ and construct a road to lake Saiful Muluk which can save thousands of tourists from the torture of inhuman travel through rocks and stones. If the ‘jeep mafia’ of Naran subverts the construction of road from Naran to that lake, where is the writ of the K-P government? The provincial government must provide hygienic conditions to tourists along with affordable hotels but it has been observed that unlike tall claims on the part of the PTI government, the reality on the ground is different. There is a nexus between hotel mafia and the government which results into the exploitation of tourists. The K-P government must implement its policy decision to promote local and foreign tourism instead of being involved in corruption with ‘jeep and hotel mafia’. There are other destinations in Swat and Kaghan-Naran where one can observe pathetic condition of roads and poor tourist infrastructure.
Third, if the government projects that Pakistan will earn Re1 trillion from tourism by 2025, in that case hectic efforts should be made both at federal and provincial levels to create the culture of tourism by taking measures which have been highlighted above. When there was civil war going on in Sri Lanka from 1983 till 2009 and foreign tourism plummeted, the government encouraged local tourism which tried to bridge the gap in income from foreign tourism. Pakistan needs to promote homegrown tourism and take practical steps to provide safety, security, better hygienic, infrastructure and accommodation facilities so that both local and foreign tourists can be pulled in.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 18th, 2021.