Pakistan is ‘Asia’s best kept secret’ – A melting pot of ancient history, heritage and identity

Pakistan is ‘Asia’s best kept secret’ – A melting pot of ancient history, heritage and identity


Travel and tourism are one of the largest industries in the world with global economic contribution (direct, indirect and induced) of over $7.6 trillion in 2016.

Pakistan, unfortunately, is a country that has been at the receiving end of such mythology and perception for a good while now, even as things on ground have changed quite drastically over the last few years.

“The thing about tourism is that the reality of a place is quite different from the mythology of it” – Martin Parr.

According to the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), terror-related incidents have declined 58%, from 2,060 incidents in 2010 to 681 in 2017. These figures are testament to the success of our Army during the massive military operations conducted in the northern areas of the country in the past several years.

However, where the army has succeeded, the nation – the people, the media and the government – have collectively failed to put forward a positive image of Pakistan. After all, it’s hard to imagine why the tourism industry of a country that is home to five out of 14 of the highest peaks in the world, a country with mesmerizing valleys, breath-taking meadows, and stunning lakes, has been neglected and left underdeveloped.

The direct economic impact of the industry, including accommodation, transportation, entertainment and attractions, was approximately $2.3 trillion. Several countries such as France and the United States are popular tourist destinations, but other lesser-known countries are rapidly emerging to reap economic benefits of the industry.

Throughout the world, the tourism industry has experienced steady growth almost every year. International tourist arrivals increased from 528 million in 2005 to 1.19 billion in 2015. It is predicted that the figure will surpass 1.8 billion by 2030.

Each year, Europe receives the largest number of international tourists. It also produces the largest number of travelers with approximately 607 million tourists leaving in 2015, more than double compared to the second largest tourist origin – the Asia-Pacific region.

However, it is a pity that tourist numbers in Pakistan hover around an abysmal 2 million per annum on average, which too mostly comprises domestic tourists. This is in stark contrast to our eastern neighbors, China and India, which attracts 60 million and 10 million tourists on average respectively.

Globally, the tourism industry accounts for nearly 10% of the world GDP while its share in Pakistan is merely 2.7% of GDP. This shows that the tourism industry is operating way below its potential and has immense capacity to expand, create jobs and generate revenue for the country.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the direct contribution of travel and tourism to Pakistan’s GDP in 2016 was $7.6 billion (Rs793 billion), constituting 2.7% of GDP. By 2025, the government expects that tourism will contribute $9.5 billion (Rs1 trillion) to the economy.


To begin with, terrorism and the law and order situation are the biggest impediments to the arrival of foreign tourists. The tourism industry works with brand and reputation. People don’t like visiting a country where they know their families will not be safe. It is easy to blame the law and order for the poor performance of the tourism industry in Pakistan, but the number of foreign tourists was not encouraging even before the September 11 incident.

Most activities related to tourism in Pakistan are carried out because of local tourism. There has been a steady increase in local tourism with 38.3 million local tourists reported by the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation in 2017. But the tourism industry has not even managed to cope with the influx of these local tourists.

Pakistan’s ranking

The Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index, developed by the World Economic Forum, illustrates enabling factors for all the stakeholders to work together to improve the industry’s competitiveness. The index is divided into four sub-groups – enabling environment, travel and tourism (T&T) policy, infrastructure and natural and cultural resources.

Pakistan is ranked 124th out of 136 countries which is very low considering that there is an abundance of cultural resources. According to this index, Pakistan has 56th position for cultural resources and business travel, which indicates a great potential for Pakistan’s tourism.

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.

It should be recognized that the government and private sector go hand in hand in the tourism industry. The government is responsible for a broader policy that lures foreign tourists to the country while the private sector pitches in to cater to tourists on the ground.

Moreover, the governmental tourism departments are inadequately manned and there are no tourism educational and training centres.

In a major step, however, Pakistan last week extended the visa-on-arrival facility to 50 countries and offered e-visa to citizens of 175 countries in a bid to boost tourism.

Tourists in Pakistan, mostly locals, face various challenges as tourism authorities usually do not facilitate them and they have to deal with inadequate facilities. Perhaps, one of the biggest challenges that the tourism industry faces is that there is no coherent and consistent marketing and branding strategy.

This can be compared with other developing countries such as India with its ‘Incredible India’ brand and Malaysia’s ‘Malaysia Truly Asia’ brand which attracts millions of tourists to these countries. Lack of developed physical infrastructure and intra/intercity transportation facilities is another big issue.

We can conveniently make a case for Pakistan’s tourism industry by looking at the case studies of successful tourist destinations across the world, especially those located in Islamic countries.

Lessons learnt

There are many lessons which Pakistan can learn from different ecosystems which could be adopted and replicated according to Pakistan’s socio-economic and religious setup.

It is vitally 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. Establishment of a tourism board should include public, private and foreign partners.

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 these facilities. Furthermore, monitoring of these facilities quarterly or annually will make hotels maintain their quality of services.

Following are seven steps that Pakistan can easily act on to promote tourism in the country.

Make the visa policy easier

All Pakistanis are aware that travelling internationally with a green passport can be a nightmare. However, not many know that travelling to Pakistan on a foreign passport is not a simple task either. There are lots of formalities the applicants have go through when applying for a Pakistani visa.

First, there’s a Letter of Invitation you have to obtain from someone in Pakistan, assuring they will take care of your stay in the country. Then there’s a lengthy Visa Application Form (around six pages), as well as supporting documents.

With the country seeing better days now in terms of security, at the very least the process can be made simpler by letting go of the formality of a letter, so that people do not instantly get turned off by the idea of visiting Pakistan if they do not know anyone here to vouch for their safety. The application form should also be made concise, as we don’t want paperwork to be the reason why foreigners don’t want to come to our beautiful country. Lastly, the process can also be made available online to facilitate foreigners further.

Develop the hospitality industry

Anyone who has traveled up north has witnessed the lack of quality accommodation options there. With the exception of few areas, there are hardly any international hotel chains, while the local hotels and lodges aren’t always the best places to stay at. They also rarely have an online presence, which is absolutely necessary in an era in which hotel bookings are mostly done online.

The situation is even worse in cities that are not Lahore, Karachi or Islamabad. The government should thus incentivize foreign hotel chains to come and invest in an evolving tourist destination, and for local hotels to establish a reliable name that tourists can trust. Existing hotels should also build their online presence, for this will surely attract foreigners when they are planning a trip to Pakistan and surveying accommodation options online.

Rejuvenate air travel

There was a time not too long ago when Pakistan was considered the regional hub for many international airlines, such as the KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Lufthansa,and Cathay Pacific. Sadly, most of these airlines no longer operate in Pakistan. Most foreign airlines currently operating in the country are either Middle Eastern or East Asian.

The new government needs to chalk out a plan to attract more foreign airlines into resuming operations in Pakistan, as a lot of tourism is lost mainly because direct flights to Pakistan are no longer available from many destinations around the world. 

Promote your culture

Whenever you travel to any popular tourist destination around the globe, the one thing you’ll notice is that each will have tours and events designated to showcase their local culture and history. This is a department where the country’s leading schools of performing arts can play a role. They can train young artists to perform small shows showcasing local culture at popular tourist destinations. This will not only attract tourists towards our culture, but also ensure a livelihood for local people.

Partner with travel channels

The role of the media is most critical in promoting tourism in a country. While we have seen local media groups partnering with foreign media groups to bring in news and movie channels, we are yet to see anyone partner with travel and adventure channels like National Geographic or Discovery and bring them to Pakistan.

A case in point is that of India, where local media groups have partnered with prominent foreign channels and have invested in a lot of local content for these channels, ultimately promoting their culture with products ranging from documentaries on temples to their national game reserves. This is all for the sole purpose of promoting India as a tourist destination. So why can’t Pakistan do the same?

Developing tourism across all provinces

Tourism in Pakistan, be it domestic or international, is most commonly associated with either a visit to the northern areas, or major metropolitan centres like Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi. One reason for this is that we haven’t developed many tourist spots in areas belonging to South Punjab, Sindh, and especially Balochistan.

Multan, for instance, can be a tourist heaven if we begin promoting it as the city of Sufis and saints. Similarly, Gwadar has the potential to be developed along the lines of Goa, for it is evident that clear sandy beaches can attract a lot of potential tourism. This beach could become a great alternative to popular Southeast Asian beach destinations like Thailand, Phuket and Bali. 

Rebranding Pakistan

The last step we need to take, arguably the most important one, is the need to rebrand Pakistan and project a different image to the world to alter existing perceptions. Almost everyone who visits Pakistan praises the nation for its beauty, potential, and friendly people. However, that is not an image most people in the world are aware of at the moment.

Going with something along the lines of “Malaysia Truly Asia” could perhaps be a good idea for rebranding. Thus, the announcement by Raja Khurram Nawaz, a leader belonging to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), to promote tourism by showcasing Pakistan as “Asia’s Best Kept Secret” is a step in the right direction. If the government manages to pull it off, this could very well be a small step that proves to be a giant leap for this country.

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 espouse a positive and soft version of religion, can prove to be a step in the right direction.

Pakistan is a country blessed with topography, four weathers, picturesque northern areas, Swat valley, religious (Buddhist and Sikh/Hindu), historical sites, etc. Pakistan has a great opportunity to develop a 1,046km-long coastline in the south by creating resorts and hotels.

Pakistan can learn a great deal from brotherly Muslim countries – the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Malaysia, not only from the tourism perspective, but from the economic and socio-cultural point of view as well.

In order to implement such a grand scheme, all organs of the state should be on a single page. This includes legislators, executives and the judiciary.

Rai Nasir Ali is the Joint Chief Economist and Mubashir Ehsan and Hassan are young development fellow at the Ministry of Planning, Development and Reform


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