Globally, tourism is the fastest-growing economic sector and has seen sustained expansion and diversification for decades. It is still a labor-intensive sector and offers opportunities worldwide for higher employment. The World Tourism Day – which is celebrated on September 27 since 1980 – is an internationally observed day to raise awareness of the impact and role of tourism within the international community. This year the World Tourism Day is being celebrated under the theme “Tourism and Jobs: A Better Future for All.”
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) report released in 2019, the travel and tourism sector contributed Rs2,452.0 billion (USD20 billion), 7.1% of the total economy, to Pakistan’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2018. The WTTC report revealed that a total of 3.85 million jobs, 6.3% of total employment, were created in 2018. This economic contribution is a reflection of the activity in industries like hotels, restaurants, travel agents, airlines, and other passenger transportation services and leisure industries directly supported by tourists.
PTI’s Tourism Policy
Pakistan is a melting pot of culture, cuisine, and people. Its majestic mountains, sprawling valleys, rich cultural heritage, hospitable & friendly people, and fast-improving tourism infrastructure offer some of the best tourism opportunities of the world.
Given its potential, Prime Minister Imran Khan rightfully asserts that Pakistan could become one of the top tourist destinations of the world. In its election manifesto, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf had put forward an ambitious agenda to promote and position Pakistan as “Asia’s Best Kept Secret” in the global tourism market, and promised to promote religious tourism, the historic Sufi sites across Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan, and to develop 20 new tourist destinations during its 5-year tenure.
The government has placed the promotion of the tourism industry as one of its top priorities; realizing it has a huge role to play in creating jobs and would enable them to achieve the promise of creating 10 million jobs during their five-year tenure and generate much-needed resources for the national exchequer.
The government pledged to incentivize private sector investments in eco-tourism, open government guest houses, and other government buildings to the public, upgrade tourism infrastructure, encourage the creation of jobs across the tourism industry, and ensure enhanced facilities in the issuance of visas, particularly for groups.
Keeping in view the tourism sector’s potential and contribution to the country’s economy, Pakistan is all set to host the next edition of the World Tourism Forum in May next year in Islamabad. The Forum, which takes place four times a year in global centers around the world to bring together world tourism leaders and industry representatives, pays particular attention to the relationship between local and global tourism trends, as well as strategies for more sustainable tourism growth. On top of that, the government has set up an endowment fund with seed money of Rs1 billion ($6.4 million) to promote historic sites and resorts. All these factors indicate the seriousness of the government to revive tourism in Pakistan as it was once a prominent tourist destination in the 1970s when the “hippie trail” brought Western travelers through the apricot and walnut orchards of the Swat Valley and Kashmir on their way to India and Nepal.
The past year, the government worked systematically on building a framework for the sector, along with donor partners such as the World Bank, and launched some initial schemes. A tourism summit was held in Islamabad, where speakers from across the globe highlighted what Pakistan offers in the domain of tourism; administrative obstacles were lifted to facilitate foreign tourists, foreigners no longer need a no-objection certificate to visit many areas, the visa process has been simplified, and tourists from over 50 countries can now get a visa on arrival. Furthermore, the government has decided to provide the e-visa facility to 175 countries; which the government officials say has increased the volume of foreign tourists. The government has also recently proposed the idea of introducing a single-tourist visa for all the member states of the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Program.
On August 25, 2019, PM Khan fulfilled his promise of opening up all government guest houses in an attempt to generate revenue for the government. With his order, a total of 169 government rest houses across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including the governor, CM, speaker & IG houses, have been opened to receive the general public.
These colonial symbols which cost crores annually to the taxpayer in maintenance, are now going to make money for the government. pic.twitter.com/MmsCAwxqnu
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) August 25, 2019
Major Initiatives on Tourism
The KP government, under the leadership of Senior Minister for Tourism Atif Khan, has made good strides on this path. Given that the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is home to some of the most scenic natural tourist attractions in Pakistan, the KP government, has focused on enhancing infrastructure and accommodation by initiating water supply scheme for Ayubia, Thandiyani, Khanaspur, and Changla Gali, creating new parks in Ayubia, Khaira and Changla Gali, and establishing camping pods at Changla Gali and Thandiyani. A new tourist spot in Galiyat – Samundar Katha Lake – near Barra Gali is now open for public.
Think Tourism, Think Pakistan :: KP Government has built a new tourist spot in Galiyat. Samundar Katha Lake, near Barra Gali is now open for public. Tourists have started visiting the newly built tourist spot. So when are you planning to visit it?#KPKUpdates pic.twitter.com/huZJKn1CHc
— PTI (@PTIofficial) August 24, 2019
Taking a step further, the government has planned to auction 53 additional sites for the installation of modern cabins to facilitate tourists by February 2020. The provincial government has placed particular emphasis on Swat –referred to as “Switzerland of Pakistan” or “Mini-Switzerland” by its diverse visitors.
Swat Expressway that was built by Frontier Works Organization (FWO) in record time, opened around Eid ul Fitr in June of 2019 is making the ancient valley of Swat accessible like never before. This 81-kilometer, built as per standards of American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the four-lane highway has reduced the traveling time between Nowshera and Chakdara in Lower Dir by almost two hours and is making small towns and villages of Swat accessible for trade and tourism for the first time. The second phase of the project will extend to provide mountainous villages rapid access to markets and will also facilitate tourists towards the ski resort of Malam Jabba through link roads. Malam Jabba is home to one of the two ski resorts in Pakistan; the other is at Naltar, Gilgit Baltistan.
Last year, the provincial government reaped immense success when it organized a two-day Snow Festival in Malam Jabba in December 2018 – an idyllic scenic hill station in the Hindu Kush mountain range, nearly 40 kilometers from Saidu Sharif in Swat Valley.
In KP, which is dotted with sacred Buddhist sites the government is working with the World Bank to develop a Buddhist trail to attract Buddhists, and in particular, monks from across the globe
This was a remarkable outcome for a resort, which only a decade earlier was a command and control center base for the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) cohorts, who had taken control of Swat valley. Tourism, skiing infrastructure, businesses, and overall public confidence in the future of Swat took a severe beating during this period. In April 2009, Operation Black Thunderstorm (Rah-e-Rast) was initiated by Pakistan army to retake control of the valley. The ensuing fighting saw militants destroying the ski lift, and setting ablaze the hotel at the resort. While the military retook the control of Swat by late 2009, it has taken several more years to restore public and business confidence, and revive the traditional inflow of tourists from all over the country.
In July 2019, the annual Shandur Polo Festival attracted a mammoth crowd of foreign and local tourists. The festival, celebrated by the tribes of Chitral and Gilgit every year, turned out to be a raging success as it drew a much larger crowd as compared to any other year. Realizing that infrastructure is essential for promoting tourism in remote areas, the government has launched projects to improve the road network in Malakand and Hazara regions, including Kalam to Kumrat road, Kumrat to Jahaz Banda road, Shogran road and Paprang road.
A few months ago, PM Khan specifically tasked Punjab Governor Chaudhry Muhammad Sarwar to promote ‘religious tourism,’ as it is one of the most significant revenue-generating businesses in the world. PM Khan had performed the groundbreaking of the Kartarpur Corridor project on November 28, 2018, saying the corridor would be opened in time for Baba Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary in November 2019, for locals and foreign tourists. The project which is being managed by the Frontier Works Organization will include the construction of border terminal buildings, Langar Khana, Gurdwara complex and a bridge. The four-lane 4.5km corridor is being completed by the organization at a rapid pace to ensure that it is ready by October 2019. The idea of the Kartarpur corridor was first proposed in 1999, but it was only last year when under the PTI government that it was finally concluded.
Officials from Pakistan and India have agreed on a daily visa-free entry of as many as 5000 Sikh pilgrims to Kartarpur Sahib Gurudwara throughout the year. Additionally, the government has stated it will issue visas to 10,000 Indians, intending to come to Pakistan to participate in the birthday celebrations of Baba Nanak. In the past, only 3,000 visas were issued to Sikh pilgrims. The initiative has also drawn the attention of the Sikh community around the world. A recent survey data revealed that a whopping 83 percent of the eight million diaspora Sikhs living outside India had shown interest in visiting Pakistan. Also, 79 percent of the 20 million Indian Sikhs expressed an interest in visiting Pakistan.
Governor Sarwar who heads the religious tourism and heritage committee has stated that he will encourage the two million ‘Sufi tourists’ from around the world to come to Pakistan and is expecting that tourism, when developed, can easily contribute up to $5 billion annually to the country. In India, the ‘Maha Kumbh Mela’ in Allahabad, which is considered the largest gathering of religious pilgrims worldwide, saw over 120 million people visiting it over two months. It brings in over USD 2 billion alone into the Indian economy. The event also generates employment opportunities for over six lakh people in sectors such as airlines, hotels, tour operators, medical and eco-tourism.
In KP, which is dotted with sacred Buddhist sites the government is working with the World Bank to develop a Buddhist trail to attract Buddhists, and in particular, monks from across the globe. The plan to introduce rich Buddhist heritage to the world from Swabi to Swat, and from Taxila to other places is expected to attract a considerable number of foreign tourists. Before the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan defaced the historic seventh-century statue of Buddha, it was quite common to see foreign tourists posing with the figure of Buddha in Swat. After defeating the Taliban insurgency in 2009, the government and the armed forces successfully restored the traditional peace in the area and are making efforts to restore trade and tourism in the area. Recently, Senior Minister for Tourism Atif Khan welcomed Korean monks along with the Korean Ambassador, Dean of Dong-Kug University and representatives of Korean hydro companies, visiting Peshawar museum and other religious sites in Swat and Mardan.
Promoting religious tourism! Korean monks along with Korean ambassador , dean of Dong kug university and reps of Korean hydro companies visited pesh museum and will also visit other religious sites in swat and Mardan . More expected in future pic.twitter.com/p7HKLQ3pJz
— Atif Khan (@AtifKhanpti) August 26, 2019
Challenges to successful tourism
With the government’s no doubt the particular emphasis on the tourism industry, one wonders how come the world of international tourism has still not fully explored and fallen in love with Pakistan already? One answer lies in the simple truth: some changes and reforms may have been introduced to promote the tourism sector, but there is a long way to go before Pakistan can claim to be an ideal destination for local and foreign tourists.
The country has to gear itself up for tourists. Basic facilities such as toilets, rest houses, and places to eat, are missing in most facilities and on route to these sites. Ensuring road infrastructure to go to many beautiful places is another prerequisite for encouraging tourists to visit and reach places. There has to be government regulation of the quality of services and goods provided in tourist areas. Already, after seeing the government emphasis on tourism, irregular construction is taking place in many parts of Naran & Kaghan and other tourist destinations in KP.
Other areas to focus on include managing the standards of hotels, tourist guides, and travel agencies. Likewise, there is no implementation of standards in the transportation sector. There is no fitness certification system implemented for vehicles hired by the tourists, and there is no standardization of transportation rates between different destinations. The government needs to establish information desk(s), helplines, ensure that electricity and (hot & cold) water is available round the clock, and set up necessary health facilities for tourists.
Furthermore, there is a severe lack of qualified human resource for the tourism sector of Pakistan. Universities do not offer standardized degree courses on tourism and hotel management and the courses a few private colleges and universities offer do not meet the international standards. The majority of waiters across the country are not taught the importance of basic hygiene, and the implementation of existing government regulations on health and safety are not enforced.
Development of tourism infrastructure requires significant funds; the provision of which is currently difficult for the government. However, a report of the Pakistan Tourism Forum has suggested that one practical option to deal with the issue is to mobilize private sector funds into large development projects. For this to happen, a regulatory framework is required, which can define the roles and responsibilities of the public and private sectors, as well as ensuring the stability of investments made by private stakeholders.
A difficult case in point is the Malam Jabba resort. In 2014, the Tourism Corporation Khyber Pakhtunkhwa leased 275 acres of land in Malam Jabba to a private company, Samson group, after a process of advertisement and bidding for the reconstruction of the ski resort and hotel. Only three bids came, given the recent tumultuous history of the resort (removal of the Taliban only in 2009); the successful bidder who offered the highest, at Rs. 12 million per year (120 lac/year) for a 33-year lease, was awarded the contract. Controversy then arose later, once the Samson group had already invested billions of rupees into the resort, over whether the land should have been auctioned by the tourism department or the forestry department, or whether the government should have advertised the lease at 15 years or 33 years. A project that could have been hailed as a key signature project of the PTI government, showing to the world how Pakistan has moved from ‘terrorism to tourism,’ has instead come to a crashing halt, as government departments and NAB fight out who did what. Similar complaints are being made from the donor organizations, who say that civil servants are refusing to approve any projects they are working on, including tourism infrastructure projects, from the fear of NAB.
Finally, the development of Pakistan’s branding via local and international marketing requires extensive social media engagement as well as print and electronic advertising. Advertising is essential, given Pakistan’s image is generally associated with terrorism for foreigners. For the diaspora, who typically only visit family, need to be sold vacations which involve visits outside their direct entry point. Advertising is not cheap, but targeted advertising in airplanes, for example in magazines and on-screen achieve good results with a captured audience who have nothing else to do.
It won’t be an exaggeration to say that the tourism industry has emerged as a major income-driving industry in many developing and underdeveloped countries in the world; and if Pakistan addresses the key challenges, the tourism sector can have a positive impact on economic growth, employment generation and overall socio-economic development of the country.