The trouble with tourism

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That Pakistan is a tourist destination with almost boundless opportunities is beyond doubt. From the majesty of the Karakorams in the north to the miles of pristine beach along the Makran coast to innumerable places of historic interest and world heritage sites – it brims with places that the discerning traveler is going to add to their list. There has been an upsurge in domestic tourism in the last two years especially in Gilgit-Baltistan driven in large part by the opening of the Babusar Pass in the summer months. For the first time there is easy access to what many still refer to as Northern Areas, and the people of Punjab have taken the opportunity with both hands.

The tourist resources in the north have found this to be a mixed blessing. With international tourist visits still low the flood of local business has at times overwhelmed the limited number of budget hotels. Solid waste management is a major issue in Gilgit and local authorities have occasionally opened school grounds and parks to accommodate the numbers that far exceed available bed-spaces. Hoteliers grumble that ‘Punjabis’ (a generic term) want cut-price everything, often do not use local services and are noisy and create a litter problem of gargantuan proportions. My own visits to the area in the last two years very much confirm the latter.

Elsewhere in the country there has also been an increase in tourism, and the recent lifting of the requirement for a No Objection Certificate (NOC) has quickly triggered an increase in tourist numbers, noticeably in south Punjab, this including foreign visitors. Numbers will drop as the weather heats up but this is the shape of things to come – and Pakistan is by and large unprepared for it.

And then we have the government. An enduring theme of the PTI has been the promotion of tourism both national and international and to this end a conference was convened designated as the Pakistan Tourism Summit on 2-3 April at the Jinnah Convention Centre, Islamabad. The agenda ran to 20 pages, there were starry representatives of the government and the tourism industry as well as a range of bloggers and vloggers that have an influential role to play in terms of persuading foreigners to pay a visit. On the face of it a promising, indeed laudable, effort.

I was not present but had a lengthy discussion with two of those that were in the immediate aftermath, and some uncomfortable realities got an airing. Speaking as a foreigner I can say with confidence that Pakistan is not a destination that today’s on-impulse traveler is going to find either easy or particularly welcoming. This used to be a destination that was the subject of considerable planning, research and reading before the intrepid traveler set foot. But the days of a minute reading of Lonely Planet before setting off are long gone, and a very different kind of visitor may be arriving – indeed already has arrived – and no, they are not alert to the nuances of local culture, may not dress as modestly as might be liked and are going to have expectations of a service culture that simply does not exist outside high-end five-star hotels of which there is just a handful.

If Pakistan is to benefit from a new age of international tourism a lot is going to have to change, and first among these is the dissipation of the self-deception that this is a welcoming and tolerant country, because it is not. True enough it is welcoming to those that are able and willing to play the game, to modulate expectations, but for those that are not well a different world awaits.

The discussion that went back and forth in an elegant Islamabad residence concluded at one point that as far as tourism in the modern world was concerned Pakistan was little more than an accident waiting to happen, and the chances of an accident happening were going to increase markedly if there is a significant uptick in the numbers of international visitors.

We speculated on the development of tourist ‘enclaves’ along the Makran coast, where dress codes were western beachwear and evenings may be spent in the bar where a range of alcohol products were served and nobody was in the least concerned about who slept with who or their sexual orientation. Who would staff such a development…and who would make the risky inwards investment? To be sure it is possible to do, but it would require a paradigm shift in terms of social attitudes and yes, tolerance. If it could be made to work it is a potential moneyspinner, but it is a big if.

As for other cultural and heritage destinations the lack of bedspaces outside the honey-pot mountain areas is a severe limiter, and the transport infrastructure is not equal to the task either. Internal flights are few; rail is unreliable and massively underinvested with a chronically poor safety record. Again to be sure there are heavily promoted stories of individual travelers that have enjoyed nothing but a positive experience, with a recent story headlined ‘Everything is free in Pakistan’ featuring a lone (male) traveler in Khybher-Pakhtunkhwa. But they are an exception and always will be.

None of the sites of heritage or cultural interest has the current capacity for expansion; many do not have even basic toilet facilities, and few have the ‘peripherals’ that go with a tourist experience.

A close reading of the programme for the recent conference indicates that there are big beasts with an interest in creating a model of tourism that is going to attract significant international business. There are mentions throughout of ‘outcomes’, generally a positive indicator, but there is a distinct impression of the cart being put before the horse. Pakistan is a great destination – just not a destination that is ready or able to provide for the needs of the modern (western) wayfarer. But keep trying y’all…keep trying.