Despite its immense potential, Pakistan’s tourism industry operates at a low level. Over the last decade, tourism has developed into one of the largest industries in the world. Globally, the tourism industry has experienced steady growth almost every year.
According to available figures, international tourist arrivals increased from 528 million in 2005 to over 3 billion in 2018. Each year, Europe receives the largest number of international tourists. It also produces the largest number of travellers with approximately 687 million tourists leaving in 2018, more than double compared to the second largest tourist origin – the Asia-Pacific region. Several countries, such as Britain, France and the United States are popular tourist destinations, but other lesser-known countries are rapidly emerging to reap the economic benefits of the industry.
However, tourist numbers in Pakistan hover around an estimated 2 million per annum on average, which too mostly comprise domestic tourists. This is in stark contrast to our neighbours, China and India, which attract 60 million and 10 million tourists on average respectively.
According to the Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index released by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in September 2019, covering 140 economies, Pakistan fared poorly as compared to other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. The TTCI is composed of four sub-indexes, 14 pillars, and 90 individual indicators, including safety and security, information and communications technology, T&T policy and enabling conditions, international openness, price competitiveness, infrastructure, and which include the following pillars, i) air transport infrastructure, natural and cultural resources, and within it, i) natural resources, and ii) cultural resources and business travel.
On the basis of these criteria, the report evaluates the performance of various institutions. Pakistan’s T&T sector is very weak as per the TTCI 2019, which ranks the country at 121, out of a total of 140. The report says that Pakistan with regard to its T&T sector falls in the bottom 25% (or quartile) of countries, most of which belong to low to lower-middle income economies, with 26 in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In the Asia-Pacific region, Pakistan is the lowest ranked country overall at 121, whereas among other countries in the region, India is 34th among the 140 countries, Vietnam 63rd, Sri Lanka 77th, Nepal 102nd, and Bangladesh 120th. Regarding enabling environment, Pakistan is ranked at 119th position, for travel and tourism policy and enabling conditions at 122nd position, and for infrastructure, at 99th position.
As for infrastructure, Pakistan’s rankings on the related pillars are as follows: air transport infrastructure (96th), ground and port infrastructure (73rd), and tourist service infrastructure (112th), which includes the following indicators, i) hotel rooms, ii) quality of tourism infrastructure, iii) presence of major car rental companies, and iv) automated teller machines.
In its report, UNESCO says that tourism presents both opportunities and challenges. With more than 1.3 billion people travelling across borders each year, World Heritage sites, Biosphere Reserves and Global Geoparks around the world are attracting a growing number of visitors. “This is creating significant opportunities for local economic development, investment, and revenue for conservation. It is also enabling us to educate more people about our cultural and natural heritage, and the need to protect it for future generations,” it said. Tourism is also being used as a tool for creativity and innovation, to support intangible cultural heritage and the creative industries.
Like any activity, tourism has powerful effects on the economy, society and environment. In addition to the socioeconomic impact of tourism, the sector, if managed sustainably, can be a factor for environmental preservation, cultural appreciation and understanding among peoples. Sustainable tourism is a positive instrument towards the eradication of poverty, the protection of the environment and the improvement of quality of life, especially in developing countries. Well-designed and well-managed tourism can make a significant contribution to the three dimensions of sustainable development —economic, social and environmental.
Pakistan has tremendous potential for tourism promotion which has not yet been fully utilized. The need is to launch a coordinated drive to boost both domestic and international tourism. The problems hindering tourism in Pakistan are mostly related to inadequate infrastructure, negative travel advisory to international tourists, boarding and lodging, poor connectivity through air and road, NoC requirement for foreigners to visit Northern Areas including Azad Jammu and Kashmir, a trust deficit in public and private sectors and poor tour operators.
There are numerous reasons for the sub-optimal performance of the tourism sector. Security, terrorism and law and order are the main reasons that impede the tourism industry and prevent tourists from visiting Pakistan. Government negligence and bureaucratic inertia is the second main reason that negatively affects this industry. There is no national tourism policy while the sector has been devolved to provinces without having any coordination mechanism at the national level. There seems to be little dedication and commitment at the national and provincial levels towards promotion and projection of tourism opportunities and touristic products.
Pakistan is a country generously blessed with topography, four weathers, picturesque Northern Areas, Swat Valley, religious (Buddhist and Sikh/Hindu) and historical sites, etc. Pakistan also has a great opportunity to develop a 1,046km-long coastline in the south by creating resorts and hotels. To develop the sector, it is important to develop a comprehensive tourism policy which integrates all the provinces, including Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir. In order to create an enabling environment, the government should promote public-private partnership for a competitive tourism market.
Domestic tourism has increased but the facilities and the management of tourist hotels are not satisfactory. The government should regulate and standardise the quality of these facilities. Furthermore, monitoring of these facilities quarterly or annually will make hotels maintain their quality of services. For foreign tourism, one of the most important aspects is to develop a branding strategy which creates a soft image of Pakistan. In this regard, sponsoring journalists, academics and public intellectuals, who project a positive and soft version of Pakistan, can prove to be a step in the right direction. Without doubt, the recent decision by the government to allow e-visa and grant visa on arrival to citizens of over 60 countries will go a long way to attract more tourists. At the same time, Pakistan’s embassies abroad should be directed to widely publicise the new tourist-friendly policies adopted by the government.