Tourism in Pakistan; A great hidden economic strength!

Tourism in Pakistan

Tourism and related activities are considered a great source of revenue generation for an economy as this sector contributes a fair share to a country’s economic development and growth. It supplements foreign exchange earnings, and sometimes also finances the import of capital goods necessary for the growth of manufacturing sectors in an economy. On the other hand, rapid economic growth in developed economies attracts foreigners on business travels, which leads to an increase in the forex reserves of a country. In Pakistan, the government is making strenuous efforts to promote tourism and it is expected that by 2025, the tourism sector will be contributing, at least, one trillion rupees to the national economy. 

In October 2006, a British newspaper The Guardian released a list what it described as “Top Five Tourist Sites in Pakistan” to help boost the country’s tourism industry. The sites included Lahore, the Karakoram Highway, Karimabad and Lake Saiful Muluk. Then, to promote the country’s unique cultural heritage, the Government of Pakistan launched the “Visit Pakistan” campaign in 2007. This campaign involved events throughout the year including fairs and religious festivals, regional sporting events, arts and craft shows, folk festivals and openings of historical museums. In 2010, Lonely Planet, a large travel guide book publisher, termed Pakistan as being “tourism industry’s ‘next big thing’. But, over these years, the prejudiced world media kept on portraying Pakistan as a hub of terrorism and their headlines always sent things off the rails. And, now, in 2018, the British Backpacker Society has ranked Pakistan as the world’s top adventure travel destination, describing Pakistan as “one of the friendliest countries on earth, with mountain scenery that is beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.”

A look at the statistics of recent years suggests that in 2016, the number of foreign tourists visiting Pakistan stood at 965,498. Pakistan’s tourism industry attracted an estimated 1.1 million foreign tourists in 2011 and 966,000 in 2012, contributing $351 million and $369 million, respectively, to the national exchequer. Before declining to 565,212 in 2013, which contributed only $298 million in 2014, Pakistan received 530,000 foreign tourists contributing $308 million. By comparison, Pakistan’s domestic tourism industry is estimated at 50 million tourists who travel in the country on short trips usually between May and August. The largest tourism inflow in 2010 was from United Kingdom, followed by United States, India and China. The travel and tourism sector contributed Rs930.9 billion, that is 2.9 percent of Pakistan’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2017 and is forecast to rise this year. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the direct contribution of travel and tourism in Pakistan has remained with the rise by 5.9 percent to Rs. 986 billion in 2018. The contribution primarily reflects the economic activity generated by industries such as hotels, travel agents, airlines and other passenger transportation services. Total contribution of travel and tourism to GDP, including wider effects from investment, the supply chain and induced income impacts was Rs2,349 billion in 2017 (7.4 percent of GDP) and it was by 5.8 percent to Rs. 2,486 billion (7.4 percent of GDP) in 2018. Further, the report stated that travel and tourism generated 1,493,000 jobs directly in 2017 (2.5 percent of total employment) and this is forecast to grow by 2.8 percent in 2018 to 1,534,000 (2.5 percent of total employment). By 2028, travel and tourism will account for 2,008,000 jobs directly.

There lies an untapped potential in the tourism industry of Pakistan because of its diverse culture, languages, heritage and traditions which, if harnessed effectively, can contribute to GDP worth $9.5 billion by 2025. But, Pakistan attracted just around two million foreign tourists in 2018. In the same duration, Turkey had a record season with 39 million foreign tourists. Admittedly, it is not advisable to compare Pakistan with well-established tourist destinations like Spain (77m) and Italy (56m), what about our neighbours? China had 64 million tourists and India, for the first time in its history, hit the 11 million mark in 2018.

Tourism has become an important source of revenue generation for many a country. Tourism industry was responsible for 11.2 percent of the global GDP in 2018. In Turkey, tourism accounted for 23 percent of its total GDP. According to India’s tourism minister, New Delhi earned $29 billion in 2018 from the arrival of foreign tourists alone. On the contrary, direct contribution of tourism to Pakistan was only 2.9 percent of the GDP, according to the World Tourism and Travel Council – abysmal by any standards.

Major impediments to the growth of tourism in Pakistan are terrorism and the precarious law and order situation. The tourism industry works on brand and repute. And, this is the issue that can be sorted out through concerted efforts by the government and the private sector. The government and the private sector go hand in hand in the tourism industry. The government is responsible for a broader policy that lures foreign tourists to the country while the private sector pitches in to cater for them on ground. Most of the tourism-related activities in Pakistan is happening on account of local tourism. There has been a steady increase in local tourism with 39.7 million local tourists reported by the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation in the last year. But the tourism industry has even failed to cope with the influx of these local tourists. Consider going to Murree on a public holiday to enjoy the snow. You will definitely be stuck somewhere on your way. If, by chance, you are able to reach the hill station, it will be an uphill task to get yourself a reasonable room for the night with basic amenities such as warm water, good food and heating.

Another impediment for foreigners is to get a visa to visit Pakistan. It may sound odd but Pakistan is one of the hardest countries with respect to visa processes and checks. The extra checks were created in the wake of the security situation in the country, but this had an adverse impact on tourism. Recently, the government has tried to fix this problem by announcing visa-free entry to 30 tourist-friendly countries. This may help increase the confidence of foreign tourists in Pakistan.

In today’s world, most of the foreign tourists travel through e-visa. Each country brands itself extensively to the world. For India, it is ‘Incredible India’ and the Taj Mahal as its face, and for Malaysia, it is ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’. Why can’t we have our beautiful face shown to the world? After all, we have the world’s most amazing mountains, one of the world’s most beautiful capitals, one of the world’s most beautiful mosques, the birth place of the oldest civilizations and one of the warmest and hospitable people in the world. It is a shame that countries with which we have cordial relations such as Turkey and China know more about our neighbouring country, thanks to their entertainment industry. The Pakistani entertainment industry needs to seriously think global and help build the soft image of Pakistan. For every tourist-friendly country, means of transportation are important, starting from direct air routes, good airports and stopovers to intercity as well as intra-city connectivity. One cannot imagine life in London without its tube stations or in Istanbul without its tram and metro. They have become part and parcel of the tourism sector. Large numbers of people cannot be transported on taxis and buses alone. We need newer modes of mass transit. It is hoped that Pakistani cities will also try to bring innovation to ease massive congestion on the roads.

The tourism industry is expected to grow worldwide in the coming years with developing countries taking the lead in both aspects of where the tourists come from and where they are going to. Currently, Pakistan is ranked 124th, according to the World Economic Forum Tourism and Competitive Ranking. We need to up our game. The ‘Amazing Pakistan’ and ‘Emerging Pakistan’ campaigns are currently running all over the world but they need to be supplemented through various ‘offers’, ‘deals’ and ‘promotions’ that we ourselves love to take when we go out searching for places to visit. Pakistan must not lose the opportunity to make its mark on global tourism. We have already lost precious time. Let us not wait anymore and open our doors to show the world really how ‘Amazing Pakistan’ is. In the eight years, following the devolution of tourism to provinces, it continues to be vastly ignored. The failure ranges from evolving a provincial tourism policy to inadequate infrastructure to attract domestic and international tourists.

To accomplish the dream of making Pakistan a tourism destination, the CPEC can play a vital role as this mega project is a combination of infrastructure development projects and highways, railways and pipelines which will connect several countries with each other and provide a means for mutual interactions, engagements and people-to-people exchanges. The initiative also includes the expansion of Karakoram Highway, the road that connects China and Pakistan, which can prove to be a lifeline for the growth of tourism in the country. Pakistan is home to stunning Himalayan peaks, including K-2, and various magnificent valleys. It has beautiful Arabian Sea, deserts, Indus valley and ancient Buddha civilization carved in its mountains and historic forts. With the completion of CPEC project, there will be a massive increase in the number of visitors coming to Pakistan and the country can exploit this traffic to generate huge economic activity by development of tourism sector. Gilgit-Baltistan is the hub of tourism industry in Pakistan which attracts millions of local and foreign tourists. Every year, approximately 2-2.5 million tourists, both domestic and international, travel to the northern areas in Pakistan. The government of Azad Jammu and Kashmir has already announced to set up a tourism corridor in the valley to attract tourists. It is hoped that with the completion of CPEC, the tourism industry will rapidly grow and not only generate a huge foreign reserve for Pakistan but also promote a soft image of the country abroad.

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