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 about 3 billion in 2017. Each year, Europe receives the largest number of international tourists. It also produces the largest number of travellers with approximately 607 million tourists leaving in 2016, 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 economic benefits of the industry. However, tourist numbers in Pakistan hover around an abysmal 2 million per annum on average, which too mostly comprise domestic tourists. This is in stark contrast to our eastern neighbors, China and India, which attract 60 million and 10 million tourists on average, respectively.
How bad the tourism situation in our country is, can be gauged from the fact that in the Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index 2017 of the World Economic Forum, Pakistan was ranked 124 out of 136 countries covered. The worst category in the ranking scale was due to visa requirements, where its position was 135 out of 136 countries. In terms of prioritisation of travel and tourism, the country ranked at 132 among the 136 countries surveyed in the report. Similarly, the effectiveness of marketing and branding to attract tourists got the ranking of 125 out of 136. According to the report, the quality of tourism infrastructure was ranked at 123, while hotel rooms got ranking of 129. There are a total of 36 world heritage cultural sites in Pakistan while the attractiveness of natural assets scored 127.
UNESCO says tourism presents both opportunities and challenges. With more than 1.2 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. Tourism is also being used as a tool for creativity and innovation, to support intangible cultural heritage and 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 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 AJK, trust deficit in public and private sector 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 the 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 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), 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 national 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 very accommodating. The government should regulate and standardise the quality of the facilities. Furthermore, monitoring of the 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 clerics, academics and public intellectuals, who project a positive and soft version of religion, 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.