Promoting the tourism industry is one of the top priorities of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government. Prime Minister Imran Khan is right when he says that Pakistan could become one of the top tourist destinations of the world, given its potential.
Unfortunately, previous successive governments have paid little attention to this sector. Another factor that undermined the tourism industry was the precarious security situation Pakistan had to deal with after the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
However, Pakistan has made great strides in recent years in terms of improving the law and order situation — something that prompted foreign tourists to explore the natural beauty of Pakistan. Renowned vloggers now frequently visit Pakistan. This has helped showcase the ‘other Pakistan’ that has long remained in oblivion.
The current government has taken a number of steps to promote tourism. It organised a tourism summit in Islamabad and invited speakers from across the globe to highlight what Pakistan offers in the field of tourism. Many bureaucratic hurdles have been done away with to facilitate foreign tourists.
For example, the government has abolished the requirement of a no-objection certificate (NOC) for foreigners seeking to visit certain parts of Pakistan. Similarly, the visa process has been simplified. Barring a few exceptions, tourists from several countries can now get a visa on arrival.
While all these measures deserve appreciation, there is a long way to go before Pakistan can claim to be an ideal destination — not only for foreign but for local tourists as well. Many changes and reforms may have been introduced to promote the tourism sector, but little work has been done on ground.
Just recently I travelled to Naran — one of the most visited tourist destinations located in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) province. It was not my first visit and the place offers breathtaking scenery and natural beauty comparable with any popular tourist spot in the West.
During my last visit in 2017, many issues overshadowed my trip. This time though, I went there with a hope that the situation would be different, given the emphasis the current government has laid on promoting the tourism industry.
Unfortunately, the situation was even worse since the last time. Contrary to the tall claims made by the PTI government at the Center and in K-P, there has been little progress in terms of infrastructure and other facilities that are a prerequisite for encouraging tourists.
For example, on my way to Naran, I got stuck in a traffic jam for over four hours due to a truck breaking down at Kiwai. The traffic jam was not unusual given such mishaps were common in the difficult terrain.
The problem was that there was no traffic police or any local administration to clear the mess. Locals and tourists had to volunteer themselves for clearing the traffic. It took me 12 hours to reach Naran from Islamabad — a journey that otherwise should take 7 hours.
The hiccup was easily forgettable due to the natural beauty of the area. However, one cannot ignore the pace at which Naran city is turning into any other Pakistani town. Dust, waste dumped in open spaces, and traffic greets you as you enter the town.
The irregular manner of constructing hotels, restaurants and other buildings suggests that the administration has no control or planning. Any tourist spot has basic facilities such as an information desk, restrooms and a 24/7 helpline.
Unfortunately, none of these were available in the entire Kaghan Valley. So much so there were no dustbins or electricity available round the clock. Now imagine the impression foreign tourists will get when they visit such places.
The situation warrants urgent intervention from the government or the responsible persons, otherwise making Pakistan an attractive tourist destination will remain a pipedream.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 22, 2019.