Opening doors to the world


Shakeel A. Malik

WITH easing of international travel advisories following improved security situation and a much — relaxed visa regime, Pakistan is emerging as a high demand destination for foreign tourists. Unveiling online visa System on March 14 Prime Minister Imran Khan declared the new policy as the first big step towards reversing a stringent visa regime. It is believed that with ultra-liberal visa policy the country's doors would be flung wide open to legions of global travelers to Asia's best kept secret as the country is poised to enter an era of getting discovered.

The prevailing calm has been strengthened by Prime Minister Khan's peace overtures in the region. The PTI governance is keen to bring about turnaround in the tourism industry with twin objectives of improving country's image and increasing tourism sector's contribution to GDP. It is for the first time in country's history that huge tourism potential has found a government with equally tremendous will to employ that potential as force of attraction.

As British Airways resumes flight operations to Pakistan and Portugal and other countries start dropping negative advisories, Pakistan is expecting large influx of visitors this year. The International Air Transport Association has allowed tour operators to bring tourist groups to Pakistan.

Through an unprecedentedly liberalized visa policy, e-visas will be issued to nationals of 175 countries while the number of countries that would benefit from visa-on-arrival facility has been more than double from 24 to 55. Visa procedures for businessmen have been made simpler and swift for 90 countries as business tourism is on the priority list. The visa fee has also been reduced for the tourists. Under the new tourist friendly framework, movement restrictions have been lifted in Azad Jammu & Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, known for their awe-inspiring mountainous terrain and immense tourism value.

Soon after taking office Prime Minister went ahead by forming a National Task Force on tourism. He reorganized Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation and constituted a National Tourism Coordination Board comprising of public and private stakeholders. The private sector has been taken on board to implement government’s economic agenda in which tourism promotion has a special place. The Tourism Board is mandated to facilitate provinces in developing regulatory framework, create a strong brand and marketing strategy, and learn from global best practices in sustainable tourism and environment conservation.

A strategy is in place to expand tourism in a smart way beyond the existing tourist spots. The plan is to develop 20 new tourist destinations, and encourage private sector investments for upgrading and developing new facilities for “themed” tourism. Public sector guest houses are being converted into tourist accommodations in addition to giving easy loans to local people to build guest rooms for tourists.

With a view to bringing tourism to the centerstage of development, nine working groups under the Tourism Board have been tasked with creating customized and action packed products in line with the contemporary trends. The tailor-made packages will be shaped up for the digitally sophisticated consumers who are more interested in a unique and once-in-a-lifetime “combo experience” that combines entertainment, shopping festivals, celebrations apart from visiting awesome resorts in hilly areas and beaches.

Focus is more on value-added packages for religious and adventure tourism, in addition to traditional sight-seeing related to culture, history and archaeology. Prime Minister Khan took the initiative of opening Kartarpur Corridor, visa-free transit, between Pakistan and India, a step billed as an important confidence building measure apart from pulling Sikh community members from India and elsewhere in the world. There are also numerous ancient religious sites for Buddhists and Hindus which have not been visited much in the past.

Pakistan's diverse topography and cultural mix makes it the ultimate arena of a thousand achievement-oriented adventures including trekking, mountaineering, white water rafting & extreme kayaking, desert and Himalayan jeep safaris, heli-skiing and trout fishing. Enthralling festivals in different regions of the country including Shandur festival on world's highest polo ground, Silk Route festival, Sibi Mela, Lok Virsa festival, and colourful spring festivals are looking forward to welcoming the visitors.

American business magazine Forbes listed Pakistan among top ten favorite travel destinations, saying that with startlingly striking landscape coupled with traditional warmth of hosts “there is a grand adventure to be had”. The British Backpacker Society believes that Pakistan is about to join the club of coolest destinations, especially for exciting adventures and breath-taking resorts.

Association of British Travel Agents is of the view that the most popular tourist trend is demand for new destinations. Pakistan's previously less frequented mesmerizing heritage, stunning spectacles, almost thousand kilometers long coastline, cultural goldmine and foodie heaven are waiting to be experienced.

Another tourist pulling factor is high value tourist with less money. Pakistan is one of the most economical destinations. In Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report published by World Economic Forum, Pakistan was ranked 29th among 136 countries in terms of price competitiveness. Tourists can have access to online competitive tour packages in addition to relishing virtual tours of Pakistan.

The social media is awash with bloggers and v-loggers sharing their thrilling experiences in Pakistan. The brief travelogue of Mark Wiens, renowned American author and traveler on his blog, caught instant attention of millions of viewers who said they never knew Pakistan and its people were so beautiful. Whether it in Nora the Dutch biker girl or European travel blogger Eva Zu Beck all went head-over-heels with Pakistan's beauty as their expeditions changed into a lasting passion for the country. Canadian biker Rosie Gabrielle said she was treated with nothing but love and kindness in Pakistan. V-logger and owner of Food Range YouTube Channel, Trevor James, in particularly was excited about his plan to walk through Lahore's rambunctious food streets during his forthcoming trip to Pakistan.

The Landon-based World Travel and Tourism Council in its last year’s economic impact report said that by 2028 Pakistan would receive over two million international tourist arrivals. Total contribution of travel and tourism to GDP is set to rise to Rs.4.2 trillion by 2028, the Council says. The study predicts that investment in travel and tourism would increase to Rs.647 billion in 2028 generating over five million jobs in the country by 2028. In 2017, World Economic Forum's Travel & Tourism Competitiveness report put tourism related employments in Pakistan at over 1.42 million. The publication forecasts that during next 10 years Pakistan would rank 23rd in 185 countries in terms of travel & tourism direct contribution to GDP while it would rank 12th in terms of tourist arrivals in the same period.

Amid focus on stunning landscape, the welcoming and loving nature of the people is usually muted. Majority of the tourists in their accounts describe Pakistani folks as kind, large-hearted wearing friendly smiles. This aspect has a great appeal for new-age holidaymakers who want local experiences with destination natives. Alex Reynolds, an American travel blogger wrote that people invited her to stay in their homes and slept on the floor so she could sleep in their bed. Connecting with the people is often mentioned by tourists as the most significant takeaway along with long-lasting memories of enchanting lakes, mighty cliffs, idyllic valley, or high adrenaline rafting and trekking indulgences.

The magic of Pakistan comes out of the fascinating blend of land and the people. Thousands of profiles, photos and video clips about Pakistan can watched on the internet, but the real taste of country’s secret glory lies in experience it first-hand. — The writer is an Islamabad-based free lance contributor