A conference about Pakistan’s majestic mountains, held at Unesco headquarters in Paris late October, was attended by over 500 enthusiasts of adventure sports and tourism. Attendees came from European countries, including Finland, France, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Switzerland, and United Kingdom.
It is encouraging to see something concrete being finally done to improve Pakistan’s negative image amongst foreign travellers. However, the kind of message this conference sends to the potential tourists to Pakistan would rather be a misleading one.
No doubt, Pakistan is geographically blessed with numerous tourist attractions, ranging from civilisations of antiquity, unique heritage, religious sites, diverse culture and food, to varying topography– from beaches in the south to several mountains above 8,000 metres, including the K-2, in the north. There is something to see for everyone from baby boomers to millennials.
Yet why the tourism industry has not flourished here points at a few questions. Is it the security or structural weaknesses and poor leadership that have locked the country out of the benefits that tourism can offer? In order to start seeing results in the form of revenue dollars and influx of foreign tourists, we must first define how we want Pakistan to be positioned. What major assets should we focus on and what policies and tools can be used to enhance them? Is it sustainable that we seek or is it the quality and quantity of employment? How can Pakistan’s overall approach to tourism be made more dynamic? Do we even have a national tourism marketing strategy?
A comprehensive national tourism development strategy would require both macro-and micro-level investments in the tourism infrastructure itself, ie, good transportation conditions, access to safe water, control of law and order, provision of trained workforce, efficient banking facilities and so on. A holistic development strategy would include all such physical and social infrastructure factors while employing sustainable approaches to business.
On a macro level, investments need to be made in transportation systems and mid-tier hotels. Additionally, the tourism ministry must work as a separate autonomous entity without any overlap within other government departments to improve processes such as visas, permissions, and access to tourist destinations for foreign tourists’ security. The primary job is to improve and strengthen web-access to hotels and airlines in Pakistan. Foreign tourists are used to online booking and not going through travel agents, anyone who searches for Pakistan must be redirected to a centralised portal that is resource-rich and easy-to-use.
Secondly, tourism is a people-driven industry. Effective tourism strategies can create sustainable income generating opportunities and provide employment needed to absorb large numbers of semi-skilled or unskilled workers. A lot of Pakistani people work in the informal economy. Enhanced language and communication skills coupled with history lessons, for instance, could create seasonal employment for farmers as tour guides, ultimately, raising living standards.
Thirdly, host communities have to be empowered and equipped with more information and skills. Communities should know where their comparative advantage lies— whether it is in wildlife, hiking trails, or waterfalls, and focus their development strategy around it.
Lastly, keeping communities at the centre of such a development strategy will ensure local ownership of projects and help keep profits circulating within the economy. Community-based tourism is more sustainable and helps to provide the type of genuine experience that most tourists are seeking. They should be sensitised on the fact that the beauty of the surroundings in which they live, the richness of their culture, and the warm hospitality they exude, attracts visitors in the first place, and thus they need to preserve those gifts of nature and history.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 5th, 2018.
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