Challenges for tourism bonanza in Pakistan -Express Tribune

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In 2017, the WTTC (World Travel and Tourism Council) put Pakistan’s tourism revenue at $19.4 billion (6.9% of GDP), contributing 6.3% of total employment. By comparison tiny Macau, Maldives and Seychelles earn 72%, 66.1% and 65.8% GDP respectively from tourism. The WTTC forecasts Pakistan’s tourism revenue to rise up to $36.1 billion by 2030. PTI government projects are estimated to earn Re1 trillion from tourism by 2025. However, potential is one thing — a great bounty from God; but its optimal utilisation is another area of human effort…difficult and complex. One has written occasionally about escapades to the mountains. This piece delves upon the basic bricks of tourism especially in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB).

Irrespective of Northern Pakistan’s hidden treasures and our tourism potential, our state and society have not harvested the bounty optimally. Some basic impediments needing immediate attention are identified as approach/entry and infrastructure, state’s policy level apathy/neglect and cultural barriers.

First, approachability. Malakand Division (comprising Swat, Dir, etc) is served by a non-functional airport at Saidu Shareef. The small airport at Chitral cannot take larger planes; and the aging fleet of ATR, operated by PIA, has many weather-related limitations, making flights unpredictable and erratic. This makes following a schedule especially by foreign tourists and domestic tour operators, next to impossible. There is no rail link and the old road via Malakand Pass and the new Swat Motorway remain the sole entry points. Chitral now connects through all-weather Lowari Tunnels, thanks to the single-minded focus by Gen Pervez Musharraf’s government. However, these approaches are susceptible to disruptions and delays given their space saturation problems, as cited in my column ‘The Beauty of Swat and Malakand’ published on September 30, this year.

For GB, the entry point of Babusar Pass (13,679 feet) is closed from mid-October till April due to snowfall. The only alternative for Fall and Winter Tourism remains the Karakorum Highway (KKH) especially its torturous section passing through Bisham, Pattan, and Chilas from Thakot Bridge over Indus to Raikot Bridge (some 300 km). Last week I wrote about the age-old bottleneck of Tatta Pani Slide Area between Chilas and Raikot Bridge. The fact that the GB government has not taken any tangible effort to bypass this bottleneck for some four decades or so, remains an incomprehensible mystery.

The KKH up to Khunjerab Pass (16,002 ft) is a high-quality speed link, but the state of maintenance and turf issue leave a lot to be desired. As a thumb rule, all roads branching off from the KKH into the countless picturesque valleys are narrow, slide-prone and hazardous in wet weather and can only take all-wheel drive vehicles. The inter-city link between Skardu and Gilgit has improved, thanks to the Frontier Works Organization (FWO).

Gilgit Airport has a short narrow strip right in the heart of sprawling Gilgit city with no space available for expansion. PIA serves it with aging ATRs and the carrier monopoly, ironically, does not permit other airlines to operate flights to Northern Areas (NAs). The roundtrip from Islamabad costs more than a return ticket to Karachi. Skardu Airport can take Boeing, has a longer runway and can be developed for international arrivals. And land can be acquired ‘now’ for an international airport in Gilgit Valley. It was only this summer that PIA operated direct flights from Lahore and Karachi to NAs, causing great boon for tourism. This should have happened much earlier. The whole area has no heliports and the available wherewithal.

Rail link would make the entire enterprise extremely profitable. China/CPEC can be tapped for the purpose. During a train journey from Lhasa (Tibet) to Beijing almost a decade ago, one was surprised by the multiple railways, crisscrossing China’s equally mountainous north-western Qinghai Region. China can develop rail links quickly and under acceptable financial arrangements.

So, entry/approach to our True North, especially the more expansive GB, need greater attention on an ‘urgent’ basis. Without all-weather approachability, all tourism plans, initiatives, policies and frameworks would fall apart.

Second, state policies. Recently the Board of Investment (BOI) Secretary, while meeting the Portuguese Ambassador in Islamabad, highlighted the investment opportunities in our huge tourism sector for cultural, religious (Buddhist) and adventure tourism. On ground, all 35 motels and 4 restaurants owned by the official Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) have been closed since 2020, after the 18th amendment handed tourism to provinces. Their leasing to private sector is so for unsuccessful. Out of PTDC’s four hotels, only Flashman survives in Rawalpindi. Its subsidiary, the Pakistan Tours (Pvt) Limited, is on leased life. In 2018, the PTI government had assembled a tourism task force with no noticeable success. It now has constituted a National Tourism Coordination Board (NTCB) for the intended inter-provincial coordination. The governments (federal and provincial) would do well to limit its role to oversight of the private sector and regulation of tourism, rather than indulging in the business itself.

Third, the cultural aspects. Ambitious projects like attracting hordes of foreign tourists are some years away due to our image constraints and the pandemic-induced effects on international tourism, estimated to revive by 2023. The government meanwhile should encourage the sturdier homegrown tourism, as a pilot project. This would breed the necessary tourism culture including an industry responsive to tourist needs, hygiene and service, safety and security and better regulation of the tourist infrastructure like hotels/lodgings, transport and food etc. Notwithstanding official patronage, private sector is already investing in tourism, as evidenced by the souring land prices in tourist spots. The responsible provincial and federal entities should monitor and regulate sighting/construction of tourist facilities (to avoid scenery spoiling eye-sours), impose a rating system, regulate pricing and check various mafias. Shifting from running businesses to monitoring, would downsize the fat tourist bureaucracies as well.

Those clamouring for security and citing it as a stumbling block towards enhanced tourism need to know that a more prosperous citizenry would shun terrorism and life of crime, as affluence and security are directly proportional. Swat is a recent model.

Thinking big and out of the box accrues bigger benefits. Small, indecisive and incremental steps betray confusion, are reversible and yield no discernable benefits. To benefit significantly, we need to invest significant state power in tourism sector and follow through with laser focus. Gold panning is arduous.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 4th, 2021.