A difficult child of South Asia
Estimates show that about 80 million people in Pakistan travel for tourism purposes inside the country annually. But this booming domestic tourism has caught Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) unprepared
The time is long gone when countless Americans, British, Canadians, Chinese, Germans, Australians, and people from all over the globe used to visit Pakistan to see its scenic beauty and astonishing historical and cultural heritage. Our beautiful country’s tourism is now plagued with terrorism and instability which has kept it off the radar for all but a few most hardened explorers. Its rich culture, spectacular hill stations, scenic places, history, heritage, beautiful lakes and tallest mountains are tearfully waiting for eager visitors who would profoundly tell the world about their matchlessness. Some would say that political will comes first, they are not wrong as well.
Terrorism, in the previous few years, has harmed our tourism a lot. The most horrible of this was 2013, when on 22 June, sixteen militants dressed in Gilgit Scouts uniforms stormed a high-altitude mountaineering base camp in Gilgit–Baltistan, Pakistan, and killed 10 climbers and a local guide. These climbers were from various countries, including Ukraine, China, Slovakia, Lithuania, and Nepal.
Apart from the countrywide attacks on tourists, many countries issued travel advisories to their citizens. In 2016, UK’s Foreign Office advised against all travel to certain areas of Pakistan such as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the districts of Kohat, Lakki and Lower Dir, the city of Peshawar, northern and western Balochistan and travel on the Karakoram Highway between Islamabad and Gilgit. They also advised against all but essential travel to the Kalash Valley, the Bamoboret Valley and Arandu District to the south and west of Chitral in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa the city of Quetta the city of Nawabshah in Sindh, and areas of interior Sindh to the north of Nawabshah. Most of these no-go areas for foreign tourists are those which carry the most compelling tourist attractions.
The 2016 report of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) is silent about Pakistan. The report compares that in 2015, 18,269000 tourists visited the South Asia compared to 17,495,000 15,966,000 and 12,137,000 visitors in 2014, 13 and 10 respectively. Sri Lanka had 654,000 visitors in 2010 which was way behind Pakistan which hosted 907,000 of them in the same year. But this small country has topped the South Asia with 17, 98,000tourists in 2015 showing 17.8pc increase. It earned $2,981 million from tourism. India our immediate neighbour is leading the South Asian tourism now with Iran its immediate competitor. In 2015, 8,027,000 tourists visited India while 5,237,000 enjoyed Iranian hospitality. Both the countries showed 4.5 and 5.4 percent growth in the tourism sector last year. Indian economy was served with a healthier $21,013 million tourism injection. With a few days left before the end of this year, complete data of the year 2016 is not readily available.
Now, famous tourism sites, when displaying Pakistan, a horrible tourist advisory is shown; “Because of ongoing security problems in Pakistan, foreign governments advise against all travel, or all but essential travel, to many parts of the country. Your travel insurance may be invalid if you ignore this advice. Because of the risk of political violence, foreign visitors are required to travel with an armed escort in some areas. Seek up-to-date information on the security situation before traveling to Pakistan.”
So the wish to bring back the historical era of hosting foreign tourists in Pakistan is a far cry as the security situation is not conducive yet. It will definitely take time until we can guarantee a security-free environment to foreign guests. The only immediate solution to revive our tourism and spread the good about it is by attracting our own countrymen to these beautiful places. Through domestic tourism we can do this; overcome the fear factor and generate the revenue necessary for the renovation of current and development of new tourist sites in Pakistan.
Since the decline of international tourism, Pakistan might have missed the global charts which only portray the data of international tourists visiting a particular country, its own people; the Pakistanis, have flooded towards the beauty. Estimates show that about 80 million people in Pakistan travel for tourism purposes inside the country annually. But this booming domestic tourism has caught Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) unprepared. Officials and officers in the corporation went on deputation after their powers were devolved to the provinces and transferred to various ministries and divisions. Always looking towards federal government for a bailout package, the PTDC itself has failed to become self-sustainable. It has made no serious efforts to gain its own income-generation capacity by facilitating and focusing on domestic tourism.
Provinces, instead of setting and functionalising their own tourism departments after 18th amendment did nothing except showing interest in getting hold of the PTDC’s assets, worth over Rs35b. This greedy approach shows their blinkered vision and muddled priorities. We can generate billions per year from tourism, still, the officials in provincial tourism offices are interested in nothing but grabbing prime real-estate of the PTDC. Tourism Development Corporation of Punjab (TDCP)’s MD, Ahmer Mallick, thinks that provinces are doing paramount efforts to keep pace with the growing domestic tourism in Pakistan. Surprised and worried on a phone call from PakistanToday, Mallick mentioned that his department through Desert Jeep Rallies, Sightseeing Lahore Bus, Murree Safari Train, Food streets and Explore Punjab magazine are doing a lot better than other provinces for promotion and development of domestic tourism.
But similar examples from other provinces are absent. Wandering between 18thamendment, Travel Agencies Act, 1976 and rules 1977, Pakistan Hotels and Restaurants Act, 1976 and rules 1977 and Tourist Guides Act, 1976 and rule 1996 they are paying lip service again and again by demanding control over remaining PTDC sites and powers. These provinces are ignoring the primary fact that a toothless PTDC would do no favour to the remaining tourism charisma about Pakistan in the modern world. Like Punjab, other provinces can come forward, invest in tourism and generate revenue from domestic tourism when international tourism is absent.
TCKP is one such example, after six years of no-service and repeated demands from PTDC to hand over its motels and hotels to it, has finally decided to follow the TDCP model. Zahra Alam, media manager for Tourism Corporation Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (TCKP), denies any model copy and says her province has done a great job after taking over many hotels from the provincial government. “A dual purpose chairlift and a zip liner have been installed at Malam Jabba, Swat for serving the skiers and general tourists. 19 rest houses have been handed over to us (TCKP) by the provincial government to facilitate tourists” Zahra added.
New PTDC Managing Director Ch Abdul Ghafoor thinks provincial demands for devolution of his corporation are not genuine. “We are a facilitator, directly under the umbrella of the federal government and for all provincial tourism departments. We have a common goal, to promote tourism in Pakistan. Duties and scopes are different, but goals are not. One must understand that our job is to facilitate our country’s public and private sector tourism organisations and stakeholders for marketing all tourism related products under one Pakistan Pavilion.”
“We facilitate them in leading international tourism exhibitions being held annually in Dubai, Berlin, Tokyo, Beijing, London, etc. This is not possible until we are connected with all provincial tourism departments, travel agents, tour operators and hoteliers. We are the soul of Pakistan’s tourism across our borders and parts of the body are the provincial tourism departments. We are a must for one another. Provinces shall start investing in tourism and PTDC will do all efforts to facilitate and market their efforts at the global level. We are a member of international organisations like the United Nations World Tourism Organisations (UNWTO), Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), etc., and represent the country’s tourism agenda there. Our next job is, on behalf of the federal government to sign and implement MoUs with foreign countries. We are not useless, we are important” Ghafoor said.
Earlier in a senate briefing the minister in-charge of the cabinet division had informed that PTDC is constructing two new motels at Chail Mankial and Buffer (Sawat) to promote tourism in the country. But it is also a bitter fact that at the tourist spots many PTDC resorts are either closed or in a decrepit condition, while facilities such as transport and tour guides are absent and information unavailable.
Pakistan, owning some of the top UNESCO World Heritage Sites including Archaeological Ruins at Moenjodaro of the Indus Valley Civilisation, 1st Century Buddhist Ruins at Takht-i-Bahi and Sahr-i-Bahlol, the ruins of Taxila from the Gandhara Civilisation, The Lahore Fort and Shalimar Gardens from the Mughal era, historic monuments of the ancient city of Thatta, the ancient fort of Rohtas and the Kabule Gate is also a home to Badshahi Mosque, Lahore (built in 1673 during Mugal Empire), Wazir Khan Mosque, Lahore (built in 1635 by Shah Jahan), tombs of Jahangir, Asif Khan and Akbari Sarai, Lahore (Mausoleums built in 1627), Hiran Minar and Tank, Sheikhupura (built by Mughal Emperor, Jahangir in 1606), tomb of Shah Rukn-e-Alam, Multan (built in 1335), Rani Kot Fort, Dadu — one of the largest forts in the world (built in the 17th century), Shah Jahan Mosque, Thatta (built in 1647), Chaukhandi tombs, Karachi (built during the Mughal Empire), Mehrgarh, Balochistan (one of the oldest Neolithic ruins and archaeological sites), Rehman Dheri, Dera Ismail Khan (historical ruins of Indus Valley Civilisation), Harappa, Punjab (Historical ruins of the Bronze Age), Ranigat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (archaeological remains of Buddhist monastic complex), Shahbazgarhi Rock Edicts, Mardan (inscriptions of the Mauryan emperor, Ashoka), Mansehra Rock Edicts, Mansehra (earliest writings of the 3rd century BC), Baltit Fort, Hunza Valley (Tibetan style fort built in the 13th century), tomb of Bibi Jawindi, Baha’al-Halim and Ustead, Mosque of Jalaluddin Bukhari, Uch Sharif (five monuments of historical figures) and Port of Banbhore (archaeological site of historical port city on the Indus River).
The major hindrance in attracting domestic tourists to these historical and precious tourist destinations is facilitation and transportation. In past few years, many private tour operators have entered into the business by offering domestic tourists economical packages to visit many destinations at once in a few days with boarding and lodging facilities. This gives the tourist peace of mind, removes the burden of planning and the families prefer to pay a lump sum amount for pre-designed and fully facilitated tourist packages.
On 25 December, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) and Pakistan Railways are jointly running a special train from Rawalpindi to Karachi to promote tourism. This train is named “Sada Salamat Pakistan” through which the PTDC hopes to attract a huge number of people across the country towards domestic tourism. While the importance of such meaningful cannot be nullified, it does not fill the belly. The earning hand of PTDC is hidden somewhere else. The only way it can come out of the bailout stigma is becoming financially viable and independent.
PTDC is still failing to capitalise on the moment. It is high it outsources its motels and resources on the profit-earning basis to private tour operators or it can seriously manage itself. Asim Iqbal, an owner of a private tour operating agency, facilitates the tourists for a three-day trip to Kaghan Valley from Lahore. “We have 19 employees, two AC coaches and a partnership agreement with five hotels in the area from Naran, Siri Paye, and Saif-ul-Malook. Tourists are picked from a single point, Thokar Niaz Baig, and dropped back after the tour completion. If any seats are vacant, we can pick from our Islamabad office too. We arrange breakfast, lunch and dinner along with hotel stay and complete transportation of the tourists at pre-decided destinations with good tour guides. There is hardly a day we are not operating any tour. People want service; we give to the fullest.”
Excuses can no longer facilitate tourism. Political instability, terrorism, poverty and all other factors have succeeded in keeping us off the radar for international tourism but the domestic tourists and a few passionate and positive international explorers are moving towards the beautiful but difficult child of South Asia, Pakistan.