Weekly Bang-e-sahar, Saturday,April 12-18,2008
By Noor Muhamad Aazur
About 842 million tourists, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, arrived at different destinations across the world during the last year, marking around five percent growth. The Asian tourism industry expanded by seven and a half percent. South Asia attracted ten percent more international arrivals – India receiving the major chunk, almost half of the regional total. And as usual, our beloved Pakistan is to be seen nowhere on the horizon.
The abysmal state of tourism industry in Pakistan is not caused by dearth of tourist resorts. Indeed, Pakistan is home to some of the most interesting tourist spots known internationally. From the mountains, glaciers and lakes of Gilgit-Baltistan to the deserts of Thar, in Sindh, there are hundreds of identified and established tourist sites. In Gilgit-Baltistan alone, we have more than half of the world’s most famous peaks and glaciers. The meadows and valleys of the region are also famous for their beauty and charm. Culturally rich cities like Lahore, Multan, and Karachi, Peshawar, Ziarat and even richer traditional societies that live in the rural areas are not lesser in their potential as major tourist resorts. What kills Pakistan’s tourism industry then?
Pakistan has been a member of the UNWTO since 1975 but it is depressing to see that it has not been able to boost the industry significantly. Over the years there have been periods of very low tourist arrivals and the growth, if any, has been at a snail’s pace. Definitely the government has “statistics” to “prove” its “achievements” but in reality tourism has been a major failure in Pakistan. Not blaming the government entirely for the failure let us admit that it has even not been able to perform what it ought to. Many nations around the world have made their tourism industry the engine of their economic growth and development. For instance, Malaysia and China. And we are still struggling to make ourselves presentable, despite of the millions spent on promotion. The question is: What had they been promoting if we were even not presentable over the course of these many years?
Bomb blasts, riots, sectarian killings, fear of the Mullah, poverty, illiteracy, political mayhem and the the-sponsors-of-jihad tag have overshadowed the lush green meadows, the lofty, sky-high peaks and the serene valley of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral, damaging the economy. This negative reality, not image, of Pakistan is what hurts us the most. Let’s not play the ostrich game any more. Admit that our governments have been dirtying their hands and heads by not being able to govern. We all know what needs to be done. Educate them and implement the laws, which are so abundant in this state of ours.
Another major obstruction in development of tourism in Pakistan is the emphasis on traditional sight-seeing mindset attached, somehow, in our industry. While the web portal of the PTDC makes an effort by mentioning “Spiritual Tourism”, “Eco-Tourism”, etc. all of these falls under the category of sight-seeing.
The scope of tourism can be modernized by establishing and developing research institutes near important ecological, archeological and mineral-rich tourist sites of Gilgit-Baltistan.
The impact, clearly, would be very different. Apart from adventurous mountain climbers and casual sight-seers, we would, systematically, be able to attract researchers from various parts of the world. This, while adding to the number of arrivals, would be another major source of promotion. Researchers publishing books and articles about sites in Pakistan would be able to influence further research and resulting in more international visits.
The indigenous societies of Kalash, Baltistan, Hunza, Ghizar, Potohar, Thar, and Balochistan are so culturally rich that they can become a major source of cultural tourism, if managed and promoted objectively.
Winters in Gilgit-Baltistan, parts of NWFP and Balochistan are severe. The severity hushes all economic activity in these regions, throwing them back in poverty and resource crunch. And this too, despite of the wonderful opportunities offered by the snow, the ice, the wind, and the water so abundantly found there. Winter sports and not only polo, needs to be focused. A skiing resort is already present at Naltar Valley, in Gilgit, which needs immediate modernization and upgradation. Similarly, there are other resorts in Baltistan, Hunza and Diamir, specially the Deosai Plains, which can be used to host events featuring winter sports.
However, there is a dire need to expand, upgrade and standardize the facilities that are demanded by international tourists.
The need for up gradation increases manifolds if we are to promote winter sports. The hotels must equip themselves with all necessities. PTDC and all its hotels can help other hotels, if they themselves are aware; prepare for offering services during harsh winters.
Gilgit-Baltistan is also environmentally rich. The flora, fauna, the societies, the ecological system all need to be explored and promoted even more. Places like Khunjerab National Park, Deosai National Park, rare wildlife sanctuaries, conserved societies and habitats have many gifts and inspiring offerings that the world has not had the opportunity to view. Environmental and eco-tourism appeal more emphasis to offer alternative vistas for the expansion of tourism in our country.
Metropolitan tourism cannot be expected in a country where mega metropolises like Karachi lack peace and safety, not to mention the dust, the fume, the jammed roads and ready-to-snap electricity supply lines. Cities like Islamabad and Lahore, which are relatively clean, can be used to introduce the boiling plates of, proud, ethnic and cultural diversity.
There is also a need to urge local tourists to not empty their pockets in shopping malls of Dubai and instead open their eyes, stretch their arms and take their children to the lands of bewitching beauty, far from commercialism, close to mother nature.
In conclusion, tourism industry in Pakistan, has been suffering because of lack of planning and exploration. If the agencies responsible for developing tourism start researching the mountains and plains of our country they would find thousands of features that are even not known to citizens of this country, let alone international tourists. It must be kept in mind that most of the essential requirements of tourism industry are present in our country; we just need to reflect, get focused and realize what we have been neglecting.