AIMING FOR THE SUMMIT

For a country that is better known for terrorism than tourism, Pakistan has tripled its annual tourist arrivals since 2013.

Kalash people celebrate the Chilam Joshi festival in Batrik, Kalash Valley. Courtesy of www.atthehandlebars.com


Travel and tourism is one of the world's largest economic sectors. It creates jobs, generates prosperity, boosts exports, and most importantly, paints a positive image of a country for the rest of the world.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), travel and tourism accounted for 10.4% of global GDP and 9.9% of global employment in 2017. In the case of Pakistan, the numbers fall way short of the global average: 2.9% and 2.5%, respectively.

Despite the significantly improved security situation boosting annual tourist arrivals by 300% over the last four years, the actual number of international tourists jumped to only 1.75 million in 2017.

For the majority of the world, Pakistan is known as a country that is rife with crime and terrorism; the country where the US caught and killed Osama bin Laden.

Although it is true that Pakistan has been suffering from political instability, regional tensions, and religious fanaticism—in part due to the wars in neighboring Afghanistan since 1978—international media has failed to portray the other side of Pakistan.

Perhaps the contrast in the country's global image and the reality on ground can be best measured through the lack of awareness about the fact that Pakistan produces almost 50% of the world's footballs, a number that soars to up to 70% during a World Cup year. That includes producing footballs for major competitions, including a number of World Cup tournaments since the 1980s.

In February 2018, Russian Ambassador to Pakistan Alexey Dedov confirmed that Pakistan-made footballs will be used for 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Similarly, it's a less known fact that Pakistan has the greatest concentration of peaks above 8,000 meters in the world—13 of the world's 30 highest peaks, including the famous K2, are found in Pakistan.

Overall, the country offers a unique and diverse ecosystem that stretches from a 200,000sqkm desert and 1,050km coastline in the south to lush green planes and the junction of three of the mightiest mountain ranges—the Karakoram, the Hindu Kush, and the Himalayas—in the north. According to various studies, with 7,253 known glaciers, the South Asian country has more glacial ice than anywhere else on Earth outside the polar regions.

The lack of international limelight also means that international tourists have been deprived of thousands of years of history and cultures. Pakistan is home to the Indus Valley civilization as well as Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa: two well-planned cities with a history that dates back to 6,500 B.C. Then there is the Kalash, an ancient ethnic pagan tribe in the remote Hindu Kush mountain range that claim to be the long-lost descendants of Alexander the Great.

However, despite ticking all the boxes for adventure tourism, Pakistan has failed to tap its tourism potential. Although the blame must be shared between the international media, previous Pakistani governments, and the regional instability, it is the Pakistani administration—sans recent efforts—over the years that has largely failed to realize the potential on offer.

One prime example is the demanding visa process for ordinary passport holders.

The government is considering to expand the visa-on-arrival service—which is based on a reciprocal system—beyond the current 16 countries.

But even after a relaxation of visa policy in early 2018, only groups of tourists from 24 countries can avail a visa on arrival at present.

This is a deal breaker for most modern tourists who are used to e-visas and visa on arrivals.

Still, recent efforts must be applauded. Since the 2014 massacre of more than 100 children at a military school, the army's sustained military crackdown has led to the rekindling of Pakistan's tourism industry. In 2017, the country also began a nascent advertisement campaign by placing adverts on London's iconic red buses.

Moreover, work on infrastructure projects, especially under the famous China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), has been boosted across key tourist destinations.

Notably, the current government has finally completed the ultra-modern Islamabad International Airport at a massive cost of USD1 billion.

On the back of all-round efforts, the growing tourism sector has provided a much-needed breathing space for Pakistan's economy. In its 2018 report, the WTTC has put the total indirect and direct contribution of Travel and Tourism to GDP at 7.4% in 2017, along with 6.5% contribution to employment, including jobs indirectly supported by the industry. The report also forecasts that Pakistan's tourism industry, currently estimated at USD22.2 billion, is set to surpass USD39 billion within a decade.

Hence, it would be safe to say that Pakistan is on the brink of achieving great economic success, but much of that would depend on how the 200-million strong nation continues to deal with its security woes, and more importantly, on the aftermath of the upcoming general election on July 25, 2018.