“Tourism for Inclusive Growth” or responsible and sustainable tourism, we need to ensure that every part of the tourism sector contributes to carving its future, including communities, minorities, youth, and the vulnerable who would otherwise be at risk of being marginalized.
Tourism has become one of the most vibrant and growing sectors in the global economy of modern times. The tourism industry has emerged as a key force for sustainable socio-economic development globally.
It has become evident that increased tourism can bring positive economic dividends to the nations, developed or developing, especially in gross domestic product (GDP) and employment opportunities. Tourism is also recognized as an important pillar of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly Goals 1 (no poverty), 5 (gender equality), 8 (decent work and economic growth) and 10 (reduce inequalities).
The basic premise behind sustainable tourism is to visit the locations without harming the local community and nature but also contribute in some constructive way for a positive impact on the environment and society, in addition to a positive impact on the economy. Tourism can include transportation to the general area close to the tourist destinations, local transportation, accommodation, leisure, entertainment, shopping, and food.
It can be linked to travel for recreation, business, family, and friends. These tourism activities, in many countries, remain an important source for generations of employment and income in both formal and informal sectors. Developing countries like Pakistan can engender a huge amount of foreign exchange from tourism that could also boost their sustainable growth and development.
In most countries, the government can generate revenue and enhance household income through the development of this sector. The economic development of nations around the world is replete with examples where tourism has had a very positive impact on socio-economic development. Mauritius, South Africa, Maldives, Croatia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Netherlands, Italy, France to name but a few. Pakistan has the ingredients that can make it a great tourist destination, and the tourism industry is an effective tool of economic development and poverty alleviation.
In South Asia, there are several countries where the tourism industry is an engine of economic development and GDP growth. Maldives is a shining example of how a small island nation has harnessed its tourism potential for socio-economic development and enhancing the foreign exchange reserves of the country. Alternatively,
Economic expansion in the developed nations influences business travel, which can lead to a rise in the nation’s overseas reserves.
Pakistan, in the early decades of its independence, emerged as a great new destination for tourism, offering the entire gamut from some of the highest mountains, lakes, and glaciers to the lush green fields to the only Green desert in the world to the mud volcanoes and over a thousand miles of pristine coastline. It also offers a rich cultural heritage and several millennia-old civilizational sites and relics. Not to forget the beautiful culture, arts, music, culinary traditions, and legendary hospitality.
I still remember the red double-decker Buses that used to take tourists from London to Dhacca, thousands of Buddhists traveling from Japan, Korea, and other far-off destinations to Taxila and Takht Bhai to visit the holy Buddhist sites and the Gandhara Civilization relics, young girls and boys from European and Western countries following the hippie trail traversing the great Khyber pass and flocking to our beautiful camping sites, not to forget the history lovers who traveled from far and wide to marvel at the treasure trove of beautiful ancient and Mughal architecture and of course the brave hearted who come to admire the beauty of our majestic mountains for trekking to challenge themselves by scaling the forbidding peaks.
Then, unfortunately, like so many other aspects of life in Pakistan, tourism also suffered as a result of the consequences of political developments in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. The clock of progressive development was forced to churn backward, and an artificial cape of fundamentalism and extremism was forced on a land known for its moderate, tolerant Sufi ethos. We saw a vicious crackdown on all art, culture, and heritage-related activities and genuine debate on what cultural and civilizational direction the country needed to take.
A pervading darkness settled on this beautiful land of ours, full of music, dance, and all hues of life, with artists making waves around the world and attracting tourists to this land of many wonders. Forty years on, we have still not been able to set ourselves free of this darkness fully.
The COVID-19 pandemic also had a massive social and economic impact on both developed and developing economies. Marginalized groups and the most vulnerable were hit the hardest. However, even though travel and tourism remained largely limited during the peak COVID years, yet according to a report published last year, international tourists spent $1.3 billion per day and in total $462 billion in the year 2001 only. This is a clear manifestation of the tourism sector’s resilience to thrive even through difficult political and pandemic situations. It is, however, painful to see how Pakistan has fallen behind its neighbors and other small developing countries in fully realizing its rich tourism potential.
Only a few regions in the world can present a high-class combination of magnificent natural attractions, a rich variety of socio–economic systems, and history as offered by the Himalayan and Hindukush regions of Pakistan.
Therefore, to move forward, it is paramount to identify the reasons and point out the obstacles that have stalled and hampered the growth of the tourism sector in Pakistan. To ensure a forward movement, a thorough analysis of the impeding factors with all stakeholders on board, including the private sector, is necessary.
It is true that in the past three decades, instability in Afghanistan and terrorist attacks not only destroyed the tourism sector but also tarnished the soft image of Pakistan. Pakistan was declared an unsafe destination for visitors of all sorts, and negative travel advisories, particularly those issued by the Western countries, became an inhibiting factor badly hitting tourist travel to Pakistan. Lack of entertainment and recreational facilities accompanied by a lack of infrastructure and ease of travel have also discouraged the mass movement of holiday travelers to Pakistan.
Negative and exaggerated portrayal of Pakistan’s political and security situation by Western media has also contributed towards damaging the tourist credential of Pakistan.
It is also true that our visa restrictions and freedom of traveling to all parts of the country without the NOC also send a negative message about the country and contribute to impeding tourism.
All is, however, not lost. We have seen that despite all the problems and irrespective of the poverty, unemployment, inflation, and infrastructure development, Northern areas have continued to attract dedicated hikers and mountaineers. A steady trickle of tourists is also seen returning to some selected destinations in Pakistan, but the massive movement of foreign tourists is still awaited. It is, however, encouraging to see that due to travel restrictions abroad because of COVID restrictions, there has been a massive increase in internal travel in Pakistan, especially to the Northern Areas, which is a good sign and will encourage more of our countrymen to explore Pakistan before heading abroad and thus contributing to the socio-economic development of these areas. It is heartening to note that despite all the security concerns, economic
Hence to alleviate poverty and enrich the standard of life, an international-level promotion of tourism in Pakistan is needed. In addition to the promotion efforts, focused attention is essential to reboot our tourism sector. For this, different people and organizations in Pakistan have suggested several steps. Some of these include creative and talented people, providing attractive incentives by the government to the tourism sector in the form of basic infrastructures such as a high-quality transportation system, roads, airports, and tax incentives to the tourism-related industries, like hotels and other recreational facilities, availability of modern amenities such as high-speed internet and cashless banking, clean and modern toilette facilities and proper Basic Health Unit, relaxation of the strict ban on consumption of alcohol even by foreigners, the commitment of the government to create employment opportunities, income sources, and revenue for the local inhabitants as well as economic activities, maintain political stability, ensure the security of all tourists and formulate sustainable tourism policies. This will certainly contribute towards ensuring a stable, secure, and steady demand for tourism in the country.
Some of the analysts have rightly pointed out that “in Pakistan, acts like public destruction of confiscated alcohol works as a barrier for foreigners to visit the country. Furthermore, it only depicts the innate hypocrisy of society, where there is a huge difference in the theory and practice of the people. Societal malpractices are conducted regularly in society on a large scale.” Last but not least, intolerance and lack of consideration for other people, particularly those not from our culture and religion, has exponentially grown over the past few decades, scarring potential tourists and businessmen.
A large number of Muslim countries are very attractive and enjoyable tourist destinations and have largely relaxed their strict societal norms, particularly about the consumption of alcohol by foreigners.
Here, the example of Maldives is very pertinent as it is a strictly Muslim country but one of the most attractive tourist destinations in the world they have developed a good system where within the compound of the tourist resort, opened to foreigners only, alcohol and entertainment facilities are allowed. Maldives has become a tourist haven by relaxing its policies to portray a more tourist-friendly image.
UAE, Malaysia, and Indonesia are also excellent examples of where tourism is booming. Pakistan can study the systems and regulations of these prominent Muslim countries and emulate their model for tourism development. Mechanisms that are sensitive to our religious and cultural sensitivities can easily be put in place. In Pakistan, much effort is still required to encourage internal tourism. If proper facilities, transport accommodation, food, and recreational facilities for children and adults are made available, there is no dearth of internal tourists in Pakistan.
While we focus on promoting tourism in Northern areas, and it is an encouraging sign to see the beginning of adventure tourism, we have grossly ignored other forms of tourism. There is no utilization of our coastal areas, although it is said that Ormara in Baluchistan has the best sunset in the world; we never get to hear of the mud volcanoes, nor have we promoted the Thur desert as a tourist destination. Similarly, there are no properly educated, well-trained tourist guides with translation kits to guide and help tourists understand the real value, history, and architectural details of our historic sites or the Mughal and British buildings.
Like with other industries, tourism too cannot flourish without proper planning, investment, marketing and progressive and long-term enabling government policies. I would suggest forming a high-level commission with all relevant stakeholders on board to thoroughly investigate and give a road map to the government for reviving the Tourism industry in Pakistan. Half-hearted and nominal action will produce no meaningful results.
the Author is a retired diplomat with over 37 years of distinguished service in the Foreign Service of Pakistan. During her career, she held key positions, including Ambassador to China, the European Union, Ireland. She also served as Deputy Head of Mission to China and Denmark. With expertise in various areas, she held significant roles at the Foreign Office, including Additional Foreign Secretary for America’s and Director General Policy Planning.
In addition to her diplomatic career, she is actively engaged as Vice Chair of the Council on Global Policy and a member of the Board of Directors of First Women Bank. She serves as an advisor to the China Study Center at ISSI and Kestral International. Furthermore, she is a prolific writer, contributing regularly to esteemed magazines and newspapers. As an accomplished author, she has published several books, including “Magnificent Pakistan” and “Pakistan-China-All Weather Friendship.” Her dedication and expertise continue to impact the field of international relations. She tweets @AmbNaghmanaHash.