Envisaging a tourism boom

Encouraging more foreign tourists to visit Pakistan has been a significant national theme, especially since the PTI government assumed power. There is a consensus that Pakistan has rich natural, historical and cultural heritage (it has as many world heritage sites as Egypt has).

In theory, this heritage ought to bring an influx of tourists to the country, creating employment opportunities and stimulating economic growth. However, there is also consensus that Pakistan’s tourism potential is massively under-exploited. For an objective context, the latest Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum (WEF) places Pakistan at 121 out of 140 countries on the Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index (TTCI).

To improve the state of affairs, so far the PTI government’s approach to boost tourism has revolved around three major areas: a relaxed visa regime for limited-duration tourists; highlighting an environment of improving safety and security; and emphasising the need for a better tourist service infrastructure. A brief examination of the relevance (or otherwise) of each factor is in order here.

First, easing visa restrictions may only be able to take Pakistan so far in its quest to emerge as a more desirable tourist destination. There is little doubt that easier entry has contributed to the tourist inflow in case of some South Asian countries, notably India and Nepal. But they are not the world leaders of the tourist economy by some distance. The West European nations and US receive a much higher number of tourists, and they always have, despite their strict visa regimes.

Second, contrary to popular perceptions, the most secure countries with the most reliable policing and the least terrorism incidents are not usually the ones to receive the most tourists. Italy, for instance, had 58 million foreign visitors last year despite its distinctly poorer safety indicators than comparable European economies.

Turkey, a rapidly growing tourist hotspot, is currently ranked by the TCCI among the bottom 16 on its “safety and security” scale. Clearly, once a country is above a minimum safe environment threshold, and Pakistan may already have achieved that, tourists are likely to choose their destinations on the basis of “other” factors, which we will discuss in the following paragraphs.

Third, the single indicator with the highest correlation with flourishing tourism is indeed the quality and quantity of the tourist service infrastructure. Unfortunately, while the PTI government may have got its theory right, precious little has been done on the ground. We can all understand why Pakistan is way short of the mark in this context.

Hotels are limited in number and generally of unacceptable standards. Entertainment facilities and opportunities are seriously constrained. Automated teller machine (ATM) coverage is inadequate and car rental companies are only partially reliable. There is a clear case for reform to improve Pakistan’s dilapidated tourist infrastructure by facilitating a heavy involvement of the private sector.

Three pillars critical to tourism promotion have never been taken care of meaningfully by any government in Pakistan. These pillars include the air transport infrastructure, the employment of information and communications technology (ICT) and what I would call the “development and presentation” of the heritage. Surprisingly, none of these factors has motivated animated opinions or sharp focus in local media during the rare discussions and editorials on promoting the country’s tourist industry.

The below-average air transport infrastructure is the proverbial elephant in the room that Pakistan’s policy makers have so far inadequately acknowledged. There is hardly any booming tourist economy which is not supported by a high frequency of domestic a well as international flights, mostly by locally stationed airlines, and a high-density airport network.

For a comparison, the TCCI ranks India at a respectable 33 on the air transport infrastructure indicator versus Pakistan’s poor ranking of 96. The ticket taxes and airport charges in Pakistan are also the 25th highest among 140 countries. In addition to discouraging mobility, such taxes have serious repercussions for price competitiveness of the country’s tourist industry.

Second, wide dissemination of ICT may not be a sufficient condition for tourism promotion but it is apparently one of the necessary prerequisites. Nine of the top ten ranking countries on the TCCI also rank among the top 20 percent in ICT readiness. Pakistan ranks a poor 123 — many notches below Nepal. While internet and mobile usage has grown, it is widely affected by the general inadequacy and unreliability of electricity supply. Online transactions by consumers and businesses are still limited. The services of many sellers and hotels are unavailable online and non-cash purchases may not be acceptable in most instances.

Third, like many other developing and under-developed countries, Pakistan has never focused on rendering its historical, cultural, and natural sites more attractive and palatable. To give an illustration, it is not particularly exhilarating for a foreign tourist to somehow make it to Mohenjo-Daro only to find that his sole gain from the arduous campaign will be a few snaps with the iconic well. For one, he may be expecting a well-labeled museum, preferably with interactive displays to appreciate the richness of the Indus Valley civilisation.

He may also expect a well-stocked gift shop with souvenirs to take back home and helpful audio guides and maps to explore the site. A hygienic air-conditioned lunchtime café will do as well. Very few of our landmark sites meet even one of these requirements. While some visitors may be less observant, there are many others whose negative feedback of facilities and preservation may discourage millions others from visiting.

Attempts to promote highly positive narratives about a largely uncultivated heritage, rather complex to access in many cases, can work only partially. Nor will angry official reactions to “negative” blogs of foreigners who have tried to travel through Pakistan bear fruit. Foreign tourists do not exactly depend on the content of individual blogs promoted by national governments when making their choice of destinations. The minuscule number and at-best neutral tone of Pakistan-related reviews on the universally consulted TripAdvisor website say it all.

Evidently, a full-frontal tourism promotion effort will require substantial dedicated spending by the federal and provincial governments. To be truly effective, the drive will have to be comprehensive taking account of the major contributory factors outlined above.This will entail result-oriented coordination and cooperation between various government agencies and departments.

The pursuit of tourism promotion has to be elevated from being the sole monopoly and responsibility of dedicated tourism departments and corporations. Demonstrated political will to incentivise bright minds to assist the planning and implementation processes and to cultivate greater tolerance for dynamic individuals in the stagnant power corridors might also help the cause.

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