By Tahmina Qureshi
To say that the tourism industry in Pakistan is still untapped would be absolutely incorrect. It has been tapped, but only to the extent of governmental interest.
When the country was rocked by terrorism after 9/11, the government suddenly remembered the forgotten tourism industry and tried to use it to project a ‘soft image’ of the country. But like everything else done in this country, the government’s efforts at boosting tourism have been sporadic and projects have been marred by characteristic mismanagement. The Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) is in financial crisis and the government keeps announcing mega tourism projects without any thought towards developing basic infrastructure and peace — factors imperative for leisurely travel.
However, of late tourist events such as jeep rallies in Malam Jabba and Cholistan have been organised. Surprisingly enough, despite the volatile law and order situation the number of domestic tourists has increased by around 20pc according to PTDC officials who also boast of generating $306 million during 2010 from over 900,000 foreign tourists of which 200,000 were from the South Asia region.
Yet there does not seem to be a cohesive strategy behind seriously developing tourism as an industry and exploring new avenues. Moreover, devolving the tourism ministry is of no help in this regard at all.
Places where infrastructure is in better shape tend to attract the most tourists; in our country that happens to be the Kaghan and Swat valleys. The PTDC has around 37 motels all across Pakistan and more than 25 of them are in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan. The rest are distributed among Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan and don’t see much traffic, if at all. Most of the lodging facilities in northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are managed by private hotels which compete with each other for customers and rates.
Sharing his experience, a psychology student Attaullah Khan says, “Northern Areas which are the main focus of domestic and foreign tourism do not have good transportation. The vehicles are old and a lot of times overloaded which is extremely dangerous on narrow and slippery roads.”
He felt that the tourism department didn’t do enough to manage hotels on the whole and said that hotel fares should be regulated.
Even a five-star hotel in a city like Multan was below par in its facilities, according to a telecommunication professional Mudassir Hussain. “I travelled to Multan in 2011; though I stayed at a five-star hotel the facilities, including room service and accessories, were no better than a three-star hotel,” he says.
Saad Raza, a business executive, had a similar experience when he travelled to Naran and Kaghan valleys. He felt that the prices were too high compared to the facilities provided by the hotels. “Given the service, the prices were not justified at all,” he says. “I have stayed in Turkey and China in better places but at similar prices. In those countries, there are either four or five-star hotels or no-star hotels — not in between.”
Private tour contractors have stepped in to fill the gap and that may partly be the reason for the increasing number of domestic tourists. Logistics and facilities may also depend on how much money one is willing to spend but in areas with only a couple of staying options, money might not be the answer.
Andleeb Gufran, a faculty member at NED university, is a fan of Shangrila and Shigar resorts in Skardu but feels that a lot more could be done. “Some hotels are good some are bad,” she says. “Except for the PC chain, there are no five-star hotels up north.”
Another area where tourism in Pakistan lacks is adventure sports for which the potential remains untapped to a great extent, even in areas other than Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Abdullah Wasim, a sports journalist who loves adventure sports, laments that “Except for Malam Jabba there isn’t any other ski resort when there could be so many. There are also not many camping facilities, except for a couple of private tour contractors.” He further adds,
“Tourism-wise Gilgit-Baltistan is the most attractive part of the country. Though there are not many facilities, the hospitality of the people is amazing.”
However, Waleed Rashid, a student at a private university, seems to be more or less satisfied with the infrastructure and value for money, especially during off season — winter or late autumn. “I noticed a great deal of improvement in the overall infrastructure. Landslides that occurred after rain were cleared up in only three to four hours,” he says. “The roads are better too. Obviously one can’t expect four-lane highways that high up in the mountains.”
As usual Balochistan and the Sindh seem to be the most neglected provinces. The PTDC does operate a couple of motels in Balochistan and one in Moenjodaro in Sindh but has to arrange special tours for remote areas. But the resorts managed by Sindh government at Keenjhar and Haleji lakes are as good as closed.
Perhaps a lesson or two could be learnt from Sri Lanka which remained a popular tourist destination in South Asia even when the country was in turmoil or from India whose clever marketing of its qualities while covering its flaws invoke the interest of any wayward explorer. But what both have is a cohesive plan, a strategy in which all stakeholders carry their equal share which cannot be seen so far in Pakistan.