Pakistan’s tourism industry has always had limitless untapped potential, but the greater part of the last decade was spent recognizing this potential. Pakistan has some of the world’s highest mountains, lakes, and natural sceneries and is a popular destination for adventurers from inside and outside the country. Pakistan is a developing nation where tourism has recently been pushed to promote economic growth and improve the soft power image of the state internationally. Most prominently, Pakistan has made a big jump on International Travel and Tourism Development Index by moving up six places as per the latest report released by the World Economic Forum (WEF). The 2021 edition of the Travel and Tourism Development Index includes 117 countries. The index ranks the countries based on the set of factors and policies that enable the sustainable and resilient development of the travel and tourism industry of each country. As per the latest edition of the International Travel and Tourism Competitive Index titled “Rebuilding for a Sustainable and Resilient Future,” Pakistan has been ranked 83rd, which is up from 89th place in the index’s previous edition of 2019. Six points increase in the raking of Pakistan on Global Travel and Tourism Index is quite a significant progress and now Pakistan is among the countries in the Asia Pacific Region that have improved its ranking the most since 2019.
Pakistan is a country blessed with beautiful tourists, historical and religious sites where tourists from all over the world can visit in large numbers. The north of Pakistan is known for its peaks, glaciers, lakes and forests where not only homegrown tourism can flourish but millions of tourists globally can also be attracted. Likewise, the historical sites of Taxila and Mohenjo Daro can be a big draw for international tourists. The deserts of Tharparkar in Sindh and Cholistan in Punjab, as well as the coast of Pakistan, particularly in Baluchistan, also have the potential to attract local and foreign tourists in large numbers. Growing international interest in Pakistan was perceived for a long time, with foreign tourists augmenting in number between 2013 and 2016. To attract more international tourists, the government ended the No Objection Certificate (NOC) requirement for foreigners so they can move freely around the country. They also announced a Visa on Arrival policy for 48 countries while an e-Visa facility was introduced for 175 Countries. The Pakistani Government and international bodies like the World Bank also got involved by viewing the opportunity in the tourist sector of Pakistan. The World Bank in collaboration with the KP Government launched a program worth USD 70.0mn in June 2019, and a similar program worth USD 55.0mn for the Punjab Government. Legislative efforts and government interventions coupled with media coverage from notable visitors and foreign travelers had put Pakistan on the global radar. The tourism sector was gaining momentum, but it all came to a pause when COVID-19 began sweeping the world. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, latest data indicates that the year 2020 was end with an overall decline of 70-75% in tourist arrivals. The resultant economic loss was up to USD 935 billion in tourism exports. When domestic tourism resumed following the countrywide lockdown, the initiatives of the government that had been put on halt were being reentered again.
Despite the important developments, the tourist industry is still facing several challenges in Pakistan. The first and foremost is Terrorism. Tourism in Pakistan has been severely affected by terrorist activities. It was difficult for Pakistan’s tourism industry and economy to grow because of the frequent terrorist activities in past several years. As it has intensely improved despite its dire situation, Pakistan’s tourism industry has recovered to a large extent. A significant amount of work still needs to be done. Infrastructure weakness, and negligence towards tourist places and their maintenance always remain an important challenge to the tourist industry of Pakistan. On the other hand, limited focus towards the important religious sites in Pakistan is still a challenge to this sector. The previous government in Pakistan made certain efforts to promote religious tourism, the most prominent example of this is the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor for the Sikh community in India to visit one of their consecrated places, Gurdwara Darbar Sahib of Guru Nanak, in Pakistan. In response to the opening, Navjot Singh Sidhu, Indian cricketer-turned-politician, praised Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s efforts; “you have won hearts.” The videos of Sikh pilgrims from India reverberated the messages of love, peace, and gratitude of Pakistan’s hospitality. But still the security to the tourists and these sites are another challenge for Pakistan to deal with carefully. If the government and other stakeholders are concerned in promoting tourist industry and homegrown tourism, they must make sure that security at tourist places, adequate facilities are provided to the tourists. Rational Policy decisions to promote the culture of tourism must take into account.
While the international community has perceived Pakistan inescapably through the lens of security and other challenges, re-allocating funds towards tourism can help highlight the country’s improved security environment. Kartarpur and other cultural diplomacy initiatives emphasize Pakistan’s diverse religious and cultural heritage. Similarly, Ali Sadara’s life story makes familiar to global citizens inspiring stories shared among millions of Pakistanis. Improved perceptions also translate into economic growth, increasing job opportunities, and raising tourism revenue. Tourist sector development can also help to boost the geo-economic vision of the government of Pakistan. For Pakistan to continue to gain economic and diplomatic advantages, the government needs to fully invest in the tourism industry and build new structures that enable further growth.