The government is making all efforts to promote tourism in the country. The Prime Minister is eager to follow in the footsteps of Malaysia, UAE, and other countries that have successfully promoted tourism and generated significant revenues. Unfortunately, the ground reality is that our landscape and topography is being completely ignored. It is because of this that the dream of promoting tourism may never actualise.
All focus is being concentrated on attracting tourists by easing off visa requirements. But nothing is being done to introduce a decent and convenient transport system, into and within the country. Even though some tourists prefer to explore the culture and visit many different parts of Karachi, including chaotic and densely populated localities, most of them prefer the northern areas such as Gilgit, Skardu, Chitral, Swat, etc. because of the cool weather and beautiful scenery. The readily available mode of transportation to these places is mostly by road. In the northern areas, travelling by road during winters is more of agony due to road closures caused by snow storms and natural disasters. Tourists and routine commuters are stuck in traffic for countless hours. In Punjab and Balochistan, travelling by road during the summers is quite taxing due to harsh climatic conditions and safety issues on the highways. While tourists are being lured to visit the scenic sites in Pakistan, no consideration is being given to their comfortable travel and lodging arrangements. The government’s policy of promoting tourism and generating revenues insures only a small part of the tourism industry remains working while the industry as a whole is being ignored. The opposite effect may take place in the future if core issues aren’t addressed instead of setting up cosmetic plans and issuing farfetched statements.
Keeping in view the diversity in our terrain, the most plausible solution seems to be greater connectivity and flexible yet affordable air travel facilities.
In countries which have given attention to tourists, all logistics have been sorted out first to make sure that tourists don’t get stranded, thereby turning their leisure trip into a nightmare. Pakistan has less than 40 airliners whereas Vietnam has more than 150 with orders of another 100 to be imported. Malaysia has over 200 airliners and probably the biggest private carrier Air Asia, with its subsidiaries in India and other countries, has acquired long-range Airbus-330s for spreading its reach, besides having a large number of small airplanes and helicopters to cover its remote areas.
The visa on arrival, e-visa and an extended stay on visit visa are undoubtedly steps taken for the ease of tourists. But the question is how can tourists reach these beautiful sites in a comfortable manner and according to their travel plans, not bound by the meager travel facilities being provided to them? During their trips, most have to alter their travel plans according to the availability of transportation. Abroad, travel plans are restricted to the availability of flights being offered by PIA only, since apart from Gulf carriers, no European or other carrier flies to Pakistan. PIA has already closed down many of its foreign stations and the in-flight comfort and service being provided by them is far below the expected standards. Furthermore, if at all tourists manage to finally reach one of the main stations in Pakistan an uphill task of commuting domestically will bring a sudden shock. Domestic flights even between major cities are very limited and do not provide the flexibility of making travel plans at will. Moreover, due to the limited availability of seat capacity, fares are sky-high. There is a gap of around 900 seats per day between the supply and demand which has caused an escalation in air fares. The prevailing business situation in the country has also adversely affected the airline industry. While many airlines have been granted the license to operate a Regular Public Transport (RPTL) and/or Charter Service, not a single airline has succeeded in commencing operations, in turn providing better connectivity between major cities as well as linking them to small cities. An attempt was also made to introduce the Tourism Promotion and Regional Integration License (TPRI License) to attract investors to commence commuter services with small airplanes to operate at small airfields which are abundantly available in Pakistan. But all efforts have proven to be in vain and no investor has exhibited interest in embarking upon such ventures.
The major reasons for the failure of boosting the aviation industry are the prevailing non-conducive investment climate in the country which is a separate debate and can be verified from bankers and official financial indicators; the absence of any commercial aviation professional in the Ministry of Aviation and the Civil Aviation Authority. The intricacies of the business can be fully comprehended only by professionals in the field of commercial aviation. As a corollary, convenient commuting facilities for tourists are non-existent and very expensive, even for domestic travellers.
If the government is serious in promoting tourism in the country then it needs to first take measures to establish an extensive air travel network which will enable convenience, flexibility, and affordability for tourists as well as locals. It will only be possible by re-visiting the policies by appointing key persons in the Ministry of Aviation and the Civil Aviation Authority on merit and experience. Such persons definitely need to have extensive hands-on experience in the field of commercial aviation. Also, by attracting private investors to invest in the aviation industry, which is a highly capital intensive industry, it will provide surety that they will not be harassed by any agency or department. Recently, monetary incentives have been provided to attract investors towards aviation but a cold response has been witnessed since it is not only the monetary benefits which matter but a major role is played by the regulatory authority CAA which unfortunately is not conducive towards entrepreneurs aspiring to start up an airline. Failure to enable the establishment of a new airline or revive the bankrupt Shaheen Air bears testimony to faulty policies and practices. The condition of allowing only a less-than-40-seater airplane for Charter Operations is a proof of naivety since there is no airliner which has a seating capacity of below 40. Bringing in a small 8-10-seater airplane is neither commercially nor economically viable given the huge costs involved in setting up the infrastructure. Without seeking professional guidance and expertise in the field of commercial aviation, the government will keep trying to find a needle in a hay stack and continue wondering about its failure in promoting tourism.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 3rd, 2019.
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