In his recent visit, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres appreciated Pakistan’s remarkable transformation from a terrorist hotbed to an attractive tourist destination. Pakistan, which was declared the most dangerous place in the world by the international media a decade ago, has been included in the Best Travel Destination for 2020 by the Condé Nast Traveller, a luxury and lifestyle travel magazine.
Pakistan’s journey towards peace and stability is unprecedented in the world’s history. In 2009, almost 32 people on average died daily in terrorist attacks in Pakistan. The total death toll from terrorism was 12,000 in 2009. In 2019, it was less than 300 and the number will decrease further this year as the security situation is improving fast. Some border areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan are still in the reach of terrorists, but fencing the border will solve the issue on a permanent basis.
Today, dozens of international cricketers are playing in the Pakistan Super League (PSL), which is being held in the country for the first time. International cricket has returned to Pakistan with recent tours of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh teams. In February, Pakistan held a successful skiing event in Malam Jabba. It also hosted the Kabbadi World Cup recently. Hindered of foreign players participated in it. The prestigious Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) also toured Pakistan. In October 2019, the British Royal couple, Prince William and Kate Middleton, visited Pakistan. It came 13 years after Charles and Camilla – the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwell – toured the country in 2006. The Kensington Palace had described Prince William and Kate Middleton’s visit to Pakistan as their “most complex” tour. The royal couple was urged by many to postpone the visit amid the growing Pak-India tension. But the couple, in the end, decided to go ahead with the trip.
The arrival of international celebrities and players in Pakistan looked impossible until few years ago. Thanks to successive military operations, national and international terrorist hideouts have been eliminated on Pakistan’s soil and the country’s image in the world has improved. The situation has remarkably improved after the launch of the Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad three years ago. The Pakistan Army successfully thwarted more than 400 terrorist plots across the country since 2017. It was a difficult operation because the military had to combat an unidentified enemy, which had entrenched itself in the country. Intelligence-based operations across the country played an important role in defeating the militants. The military carried out more than 49,000 operations to foil terror attacks and prevent militants from disrupting life.
A decade before the operation, the threat of terrorism jolted every city in Pakistan. Terrorist attacks took place almost on a daily basis, killing dozens of people every day. Pakistan was considered one of the world’s most dangerous places. The Newsweek declared it the most dangerous nation in the world. However, the situation changed in 2014, when Pakistan’s military launched two major operations — the Zarb-e-Azb and Khyber Operations — aimed at dismantling extremist activity in the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The military operation intensified, when six gunmen affiliated with the Taliban slaughtered 149 people, including 132 schoolchildren, at the Army Public School in Peshawar. The attack changed the Pakistani people’s mindset and led to a surge in public and political support for the military. Over 4,000 terrorists were killed in military operations between 2014 and 2016. As a result, deaths caused by terrorism dramatically decreased. From 12,000 deaths in 2009 (32 per day), the number declined by 87pc in 2017 and continues to do so. In 2019, fewer than 300 people were killed in terrorist attacks nationwide.
After peace has returned to Pakistan, the government has seized the opportunity to explore diverse nature and rich cultural heritage of the country. The government has also significantly eased the visa application process, while some foreign governments have started to relax their travel advisories for the country. The US State Department has recognized improved security conditions of Pakistan. In its latest travel advisory, it stated, “Pakistan’s security environment has improved since 2014 when Pakistani security forces undertook concerted counter-terrorism and counter-militant operations. There are greater security resources and infrastructure in the major cities, particularly Islamabad, and security forces in these areas may be more readily able to respond to an emergency compared to other areas of the country. While threats still exist, terrorist attacks are rare in Islamabad.” Earlier, the United Kingdom also revised its travel advisory. A British High Commission statement said the UK had changed its travel advice to reflect the improved security situation in Pakistan. “Today’s announcement is the result of a comprehensive review of UK travel advice for Pakistan, based on a wide-ranging assessment of the country’s security situation. This is the first major update in the travel advice since 2015,” it said. Portugal and Norway have also changed their travel advisories for Pakistan.
Pakistan expects a significant increase in the number of foreign visitors after the improved security situation and visa relaxations. The number of tourists visiting Pakistan has increased threefold, from about 550,000 to more than 1.8 million, between 2013 to 2018. Although at least half of them were Pakistani expats with foreign passports, yet the government hopes to attract foreigners by the millions in the coming years. Social media has played a big role in rehabilitating Pakistan’s reputation. For many years, YouTube was banned in Pakistan, which meant that very few first-hand experiences flowed out of the country. When the ban was lifted in 2016, it allowed for local and foreign influencers to drastically enhance the country’s image, analysts say.
According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, international tourist arrivals (defined as overnight visitors) worldwide grew 4pc to 1.5 billion in 2019, despite uncertainty over Brexit, the collapse of Thomas Cook and several low-cost airlines, plus trade tensions and the global economic slowdown. France and Spain, led the list of most popular destinations. France had more than 90 million visitors in 2019. Spain, which has a population of only 46 million and had a number of “Tourist Go Home” demonstrations, nonetheless hosted 83.8 million. According to UNWTO, the Middle East (+8pc) was the fastest-growing region, followed by Asia and the Pacific, which was up 5pc. International travel in Europe and Africa each increased 4pc, although travel within the Americas brought up the rear with growth of just 2pc. Travel to the US was actually down 1.3pc, due to trade tensions, restrictive visa policies and a strong dollar. With airline travel from China to the US curtailed due to coronavirus fears, the downward trend in travel to the US looks set to continue.
According to Britain’s Independent, the fastest-growing travel destination was Myanmar, the Asian country once known as Burma. Myanmar has witnessed continuing actions against its Rohingya Muslim minority that has been categorized as “ethnic cleansing.” Yet the formerly isolated country experienced a 40.2pc increase in visitors. Number two on the tourism growth list was Puerto Rico, part of the United States but counted separately. It experienced 31.2pc growth over 2018. The third-fastest growing tourist destination is perhaps the most surprising. The UN numbers show that tourism to Iran grew 27.9pc in 2019 undeterred by the large number of foreign nationals detained in the country.
The new situation in Pakistan will not only attract foreign visitors but also rebuild investor confidence. However, the country will have to continue its counterterrorism efforts to achieve the goals.