In recent years, there has been a conspicuous change of behavior at the highest level of governance when it comes to the economization of Tourism. Governments, past and present, are driving the effort to change the perception of Pakistan at home and abroad by incentivizing tourism and expanding its scope, especially the role tourism plays in the domestic economy.
The intention to avail advantages from tourism to boost the economy to facilitate economic development and earn hard cash for the debt-ridden nation is a long process. Even at international forums, industry experts and people associated with it acknowledge the potential tourism has for Pakistan’s economy.
The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) 2018 annual report penned, “The total contribution of Travel & Tourism to Pakistan’s GDP was PKR2,349.0bn (USD22,286.3mn), 7.4% of GDP in 2017, and is forecast to rise by 5.8% in 2018, and to rise by 5.4% pa to PKR4,200.4bn (USD39,851.6mn), 7.4% of GDP in 2028.” And the WTTC 2020 annual report shows that the total contribution of T&T to Pakistan’s GDP was PKR2,285.8bn (USD16,756.5mn), 5.9% of the total economy of 2019 with the +4.7% T&T GDP growth.
Source: WTTC REPORT 2019
Keeping in mind the contribution of tourism to the economy so far, the progress this industry would make under Prime Minister Imran Khan’s vision to position Pakistan as ‘Asia’s Best Kept Secret’ is enormous only if the government seriously consider the challenges posited by the revival of the tourism industry in the country. Drawing from my personal experiences and reported facts, there are three fundamental challenges to the tourism industry: infrastructure, engagement with domestic tourists, and digitalization.
Infrastructure Establishment and Preservation
As one who has witnessed heavenly places of Pakistan when three years ago I got a chance to visit the aesthetically appealing sites like Deosai Plans, the snow-covered mountain of Babusar Pass that came in the way of reaching the actual magnificent destinations. I remember the mesmerizing natural views that I witnessed. Still, I also vividly remember almost every day suffering because of the miserable roads leading to my destination, the lack of availability of public washrooms, which added to the misery, and the inadequate water supply at some hotels made mornings after a long tiring journey more excruciatingly stressful.
Indeed the beauty I saw was unimaginable, and if again I get a chance to, it is my dream to relive and explore more of the magnificent places of my country but remembering about the suffering that I will have to go through again to do so turn this alluring dream into a horrific nightmare.
A suggestion from personal experience, the government should seek to invest heavily in the infrastructure throughout the tourist destinations. Regardless of how naturally magnificent the landscape and beauty of the mountainous regions, the fact that infrastructure is a fundamental requirement to placate travel stress must not slip through the minds of the government that is seeking to revive the industry.
Such investment will not only enhance the beauty of the landscape but also will assist in the surging of the number of tourists who could get enthralled with the magnificence of the natural landscapes while being comfortably restful during their stay. As Pakistan gulf economist quoted World Bank that described the importance of infrastructure in its World Development Report, “Infrastructure is the wheel of development.” The government must prioritize the establishment of better, smooth roads, improvement in the quality of the railway system; building mobile public washroom, provision of water and electricity supply, especially to the northern areas.
There was a story that a local guide at the Altit Fort shared with me about the restoration of this heritage site under the funding of Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) in 2007. If I reflect upon it today, I realize how important it is to preserve the country’s cultural and historical heritage as these places not only attract tourists but are reflective of the cultural diversity of Pakistan, enabling the country to project its soft image abroad.
There are many cultural and historical sites in Pakistan which were conserved under the funding of AKTC. The government could pursue public-private partnerships (PPPs) to share the burden of restoration and preservation of these culturally significant heritage sites. It must recognize that there is a separate domain of tourism of historical sites within the world of tourism. By restoring and preserving these historically and culturally significant sites, the government could cash in massive revenues from the history-enthusiast tourists.
Maintaining a Balance between Domestic and Foreign Tourists:
The government had recently introduced many initiatives to attract foreign tourists to the country. It announced a new policy that eliminates the requirement of attaining NOC by foreigners to enable them to visit the country more frequently and with less bureaucratic stress. This step could serve as an excellent motivator for the tourists who are especially aversive to a country whose bureaucratic rules are too rigid to comply.
In addition to that, Pakistan Tourism Summit was held in April 2019 to collaborate with travelers, bloggers, and tour operators across the world with a motive to promote tourism in Pakistan. All these steps are essential as they encourage foreigners to visit Pakistan. Sadly, not a single local blogger was invited to the summit, which speaks of an over-prioritization of foreign tourists over domestic ones.
Furthermore, the gulf between foreign and domestic tourists also expands when visiting sensitive areas. While foreign tourist was logically provided with a security detail, domestic tourists are left to their own when touring a sensitive area. This will impede the expansion of the domestic tourism industry. Moreover, it will aggravated economic issues in sensitive areas as tourists tend to spend cash in the local economy.
Also, provision of the security detail to the foreigners even adequately secured areas projects a pessimistic view of the security situation in the minds of the foreigners and shattering the attempts to restore a positive image of the country abroad.
Statistically, domestic tourists contributed more to the country’s gross-domestic-product (GDP) than international visitors. According to WTTC 2020 annual report, the travel spending generated 93% of direct Travel & Tourism GDP in 2019 compared with 7% for international visitors. Hopefully, this data awakens the government to recognize the domestic potential of tourism and allot deserved importance to the local tourism, prioritizing their safety and security, and acknowledging their contribution to the economy.
Lacking Digital Tourism:
Unfortunately, the Pakistan tourism industry is unable to perform to its fullest potential because we failed to utilize digital platforms for marketing and promotion. Living in an advanced tech-driven world where everything is just one click away, tourism in Pakistan suffers greatly because it adheres to old, decayed unstructured approaches.
A tourism paper reported that “about 22% of the research studies speak that Pakistan’s tourism industry is also lacking proper promotion and advertisement and lack of proper tourism marketing is also a hindrance in the development of this industry.” Although the current government has acknowledged the influential power of social media and its role in promoting tourism digitally, there is still a continual lacking in how to structure the approach toward digital tourism by the government.
First, there are no effective, properly integrated, and visually appealing tourism websites, national digital platforms, app, or campaigns for the marketing of tourism in Pakistan. These forums connect the interested tourists with the natural beauty, cultural, and historical heritage of Pakistan. Presently, there are platforms like Pakistan Tourism Development Corp (PTDC) and other provisional tourism websites, but they lack the details tourists require while exploring the destination of one’s interest.
Secondly, these National and Provisional websites do not provide enough tourists’ facilities like online bookings of hotels and transport or a digital tour guide facility. This lack of access to information about destination, accommodation, and facilities is a reason behind fewer foreign visitors. Working to establish digital tourism can be fruitful in attracting domestic and foreign visitors.
Dr. Muhammad Naeem, associate professor Economics Department, University of Swabi, in a conversation with APP referred to World Economic Forum’s Digital Transformation Initiative (DTI) and said that “Under the project, data of tourist sites, mountains spots, lakes, walking tracks, cultural heritage and archeological sites would be collected and categorized in terms of facilities and its documentaries would be shared on TCKP app, website, social media pages, and social networking sites,” he added, “about Rs10 million were allocated for digitalization of projects to be completed in 10 months.”
This does offer hope that the current government is indeed expanding its efforts to secure a sustainable tourism industry through a digitalization approach. However, the fruits of such labor yet to be seen.
Indeed, as mentioned above, the challenges require a continued pursuit, patience, and dedication as it is a national challenge requiring years to take ground. Problems of human development to digitalization are bound to arise as the industry takes its modern shape, and different approaches are put into practice. However, with continued clarity, funding, and strong planning, Pakistan’s tourism industry could serve as a significant revenue generation industry to the Pakistani economy while serving as an excellent vehicle for the projection of its soft image, domestically and internationally.