Pakistan fast emerged as one of the top tourist destinations of choice for 2020 across the world in the wake of a five-day tour by Britain's royal couple; Prince William and Kate, to beautiful places in the northern part of the country in 2019. Following this, global magazines like Forbes declared it as the best travel destination in January 2020.
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government has been vigorously promoting the country’s northern areas and has been working to attract investment in the tourism on a priority basis so that Pakistan can truly become part of the global community and revive its economy.
The number of international tourists increased by 70% in 2018 compared to 2017 and they were on the rise in the subsequent years. The country is estimated to having earned the foreign exchequer worth over $2 billion through visits of foreigners in 2018 against its true potential of around $25 billion a year.
Almost everything was going as per the government's plans to increase the number of international tourists to the country. However, the outbreak of the Covid-19 at the outset of 2020 brought all activities to a halt as the world acted in unison to curb the spread of the coronavirus by imposing lockdowns and suspending international travel – something never seen before.
The strategy to confine the contagious disease initially brought almost everything to a standstill and tourist destinations emerged as the worst-hit in the aftermath. The revolution of information and communication technology has helped fast recovery in the economy of Pakistan and others including the world’s second largest economy; China. However, government officials and people in the private sector are of the view that it may take another six months for other economies to open up, even as the world embraces newly introduced vaccines.
Pakistani officials anticipate 2021 as a year of economic growth and predict a partial recovery in international tourism in the country in second half of the year; July-December 2021.
Earlier, in October 2020, British High Commissioner Christian Turner travelled to Chitral, Hunza and Gilgit and his official statement he said, "In my first visit to the north of Pakistan I was blown away by its natural beauty.”
The Swat Valley, Hunza Valley, Naltar Valley, Hingol National Park, Kalash Valleys, Gorakh Hills, Khunjerab Pass, Margalla Hills, Himalayas, Rohtas Fort, Katpana Desert, Badhshahi Mosque, Shah Jahan Mosque are among the most popular attractions for tourists.
Even though the locals mostly used to prefer visiting these areas over travelling to international ones, the government and the private sector have yet to play their respective roles in certain areas that require attention. There is a need to develop infrastructure like roads, expand hotels, motels, resorts and telecommunication means in the area.
On an average, countries around the world generate about 9.8% of their economic growth through international tourism. "Pakistan is just below 3%...if we take this to the world average of 10%, (compared to) potential doing even far more, that brings around $25 billion into the country a year," Special Assistant to PM for Overseas Pakistanis Sayed Zulfikhar Abbas Bukhari had told an international media outlet about a year ago.
Sindh Minister for Culture, Tourism and Antiquities Sardar Ali Shah told The Express Tribune that Covid-19 had badly impacted both international and local tourism in Sindh during 2020.
"The government allowed foreigners and locals to visit the tourists' spots with full SOPs and social distancing when spread of the virus came significantly under control during August-September 2020," he said.
However, the second wave has once again brought things to a near standstill on the tourism front. It all depends upon Covid-19 as to what will happen in 2021.
“My guess is that tourism will start getting normalised with the start of summer season. It would remain affected till June and may recover by 20-25% during Jul-Dec 2021…as the world has also introduced effective vaccines
The Sindh government has continued to build infrastructure around the tourists' sites. “We have provided almost all the basic requirements, including establishing resorts from Nargarparkar, RaniKot and Manchar Lake…to Baqar Lake and Haleji Lake.”
"We have established resorts on almost 15 archaeological and tourists' sites in the recent past," he said.
"Sindh lost almost 50% local tourism and 90% of international tourism to Covid-19 during 2020," Shah said. "Many consulates (however) visited the spots."
Tourism was significantly on the rise before the Covid-19 outbreak. "If it was 50% in 2017, it increased to 70-80% in 2018 and 90-100% in 2019. International tourists have started visiting places, including Mohenjo Daro and Makli in 2019 after we held international conferences on the sites in collaboration with the United Nations' UNESCO," he said.
A leading hotel official, who wished not to be quoted, said the number of international visitors have surged by three-four times by 2017-18 compared to the period of 2013-16. "The hotels in the city were badly impacted during to the pandemic in 2020. Resorts, however, managed to recover 60-70% during August-September 2020."
PC Hotel Secretary Mansoor Khan said that the hospitality industry holds huge potential to grow in Pakistan. "However, Covid-19 has badly impacted cash flows. The government should provide some incentives in taxation and on new investment."
Pakistan International Airline Spokesperson Abdullah Hafeez said that they have restored flight operations to and from the northern areas back to pre-Covid-19 times. "The occupancy rate stands at 70-80% on flights from Gilgit, Skardu and Chitral to Islamabad, while it is 20-30% the other way, as this always happens during winter."
Published in The Express Tribune, December 31st, 2020.