VISIT PAKISTAN YEAR

Tourism Minister hopeful of achieving targets

SHAMIM AHMED RIZVI, 
Bureau Chief, Islamabad

Apr 16 - 22, 2007

No matter what her detractors have to say, the young and dynamic Tourism Minister Ms. Nelofar Bakhtiar has done well in stirring excitement in an otherwise stagnant pot of tourism in Pakistan. Immediately after taking over the charge of the Ministry of Tourism last year, she launched a grand million-dollar campaign (in her style) to mark the year 2007 as ìVisit Pakistan Yearî.

Delegates were flown into Rawalpindi and Islamabad in December 2006 where at a grand function Ms. Bakhtiar announced that the year-long celebrations would help promote Pakistan as an attractive destination for tourists. She said efforts would be made to involve people from all faiths in the celebrations and added that a Christmas function would be held in Lahore on December 25.

Announcing a calendar of events spread over the year she said a marathon would be organized in Lahore on January 14 and a Pakistan Tourism Fair would be held from January 15 to 21 in Lahore. Other events in the ìVisit Pakistan year 2007î included cultural shows, meals, festivals, sporting events and a Train Safari in the Khewra Salt Mines with a cultural programme. She said the celebrations would end with a tourism convention and a cultural show in Islamabad on December 30, 2007.

Tourisms is one of the worldís largest industries supporting over 200 million jobs worldwide and making up for 10 percent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP). We have also been repeating to ourselves that Pakistan has got marketable landscape, history, location, seasons, cultures, and strong traditions of hospitality. Yet tourismís contribution to Pakistanís GDP is miniscule whereas in India it is 4.9 percent; Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Maldives are pretty advanced in terms of tourism. Pakistan as a travel destination is hardly represented on the global tourism map. Only a few of international travel operators include us in their holiday itineraries with our K-mountain region and the Shandur Polo Festival as the flagship products.

Media explosion, rising incomes and improved means of transportation have led to unprecedented growth in the tourism sector and so one can only wonder for exploiting Pakistanís tourism potential. We must try to find answers. The knee-jerk excuse of the Jihadi radical image problem is only half of the truth, as the war on terror is only a recent phenomenon. Our tourism problem is an old and long story.

Tourism in Pakistan is something left to chance. It never received the kind of attention from policymakers that it deserved in the last six decades. The Ministry of Tourism traces its origin to 1949 when a Central Tourism Directorate was established in the Railways Division of the then Ministry of Communication. The setup changed hands about nine times before finally growing into the Ministry of Tourism in 1972. However, one serious attempt was made in 1985 when a tourism master plan was unveiled, creating the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC).

Tourism is a coordinated business. It depends on the cooperation of many, such as the ministries of Communication (for infrastructure development), Foreign Affairs (for outreach) and Interior (for law and order), etc. Besides, strong coordination is also required with autonomous organizations like airlines, provincial tourism departments, and the private sector. That is why establishing a high-powered and independent national tourism authority has become so important to garner cooperation, and in some cases, compliance from tourism stakeholders.

With the full backing of President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, the new dynamic Tourism Minister Ms. Nelofar was able to launch a major initiative in December 2006 to promote tourism and harness its immense potential. Announcing calendar of events for the year 2007 at a conference Ms. Nelofar had said: ìThe year 2007 brings with it a series of events for Visit Pakistan 2007 celebrations, an opportunity to showcase the true beauty of Pakistan and its multi-cultured peopleî. The year is filled with a variety of activities planned in the most beautiful tourism spots, ranging from desert safariís to trekking in the snow capped mountains.

Tourism is very much a ìhuman storyî. Cultural studies show that the promotion of tourism has revitalized the small dying trades, which have been close to extinction. Promotion of skilled handicrafts and graceful folk performances in our country, are few such examples.

Lauding the initiative of Ministry of Tourism, President General Pervez Musharraf said Pakistan is a land of great splendor, which has remained largely undiscovered and has a lot to offer to tourists coming to visit our country. Pakistan is a destination, suited for all kinds of excursions. Our diverse geography, historical and archaeological heritage, culture and sports, all prove to be great experiences to our visitors. We recognize tourism an expert industry in the service sector, and its promotion is now a state policy with due commitment.

While paving the way for a developed infrastructure on a modern platform, we are also applying our resources to support the private sector initiatives to add to our tourism superstructure. We believe that the biggest competitive advantage Pakistan has is the tourism sector itself and we consider it our duty to play on active role in the world tourism market.

Appreciating and assuring full support to the ambitions tourism programme launched by the Ministry of Tourism, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said tourism is now known to be the biggest and most vital industry in the world today. It is the largest export earner and is considered to be a source of employment for millions of people. Most of the jobs are catered by small family-owned businesses. Hence, this becomes very beneficial to the rural population of our country, and provides a healthy and fair chance of survival; and in turn plays a positive role in national development. Pakistan is a land rich in all kinds of landscapes, may they be the snow-capped mountains or lush green valleys, serene deserts or beautiful lakes. Its richness also prevails in its culture and heritage, which dates back to about 5000 years. No doubt, it holds great potential as an attractive tourist destination, as far as its history, archeology, geography and culture are concerned.

While the tourism industry grow; so does the need to develop a strong infrastructure. With the need to construct new airports, roads, ports, sewage and water treatment plants comes a better standard of living for the countryís local population.

The governmentís proactive steps for smooth running and encouragement for the industry are evident in the official declaration of the year 2007, as ìVisit Pakistan Yearî. Amongst other steps, spending huge amounts of money, a tourist-friendly visa policy and tax exemptions to private entrepreneurs have all become fundamental policies of the state for the year.

Four months have passed since the grand plan for promotion of tourism was launched by the government which estimated to attract 1 million foreign tourists during the year 2007. To asses as to what has been actually achieved so far, Page called on the Minister for Tourism Ms. Nelofar Bakhtiar and asked the following three questions.

Q.1 It is now almost four months when you unveiled your plan to boost tourism declaring 2007 as ìVisit Pakistan Year. What has been the response from within and outside Pakistan? Are you satisfied with the initial results?

Ans: We are receiving overwhelming response both domestically and from abroad. According to PTDCís motel reservation office and private sector tour operator and hoteliers, a large number of information and reservation queries have been pouring in. The real impact on domestic tourism will be visible in a couple of months when school vacations will commence.

Same holds true for foreign tourism. Just to cite one tangible example. We received a large group of tourists, comprising media, travel, trade and airline professionals from Singapore and Turkey last month. Turkish Airline President and CEO Dr. Temel Kotil showed interest in starting airline service between Karachi and Lahore and Istanbul. The media people from Singapore showed keenness to work as goodwill tourism ambassadors for Pakistan.

Likewise, several new private sector hotel projects have been started in the country. For example, Softel - a private sector group of industries - has started a large hotel project in Karachi. They have also announced to build a chain of standard hotels in many cities of Pakistan.

There are at least 18 (three to four star) hotel projects under construction in Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, Jhelum, Gujrat, Gujranwala, Chakwal, Murree, etc. All these are an indication of successful outcome of the efforts of the present government.

Q.2 According to the ìcalendar of events-2007î, you have held 15 events. What has been the level of participation from Pakistanis and foreigners?

Ans: A tremendous response was received. For instance, in Ghandhara week (March 26 to 31) more than 100 foreign participants including over 40 Monks from Japan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and other Buddhist countries participated in the event.

Likewise in SAARC car rally, all SAARC member countries participated. The event was inaugurated by the Prime Minister and attended by ambassadors of SAARC member countries.

Truly speaking for all the events in the calendar of events, we have received response more than our humble expectations. Let me also tell you that Karachi Chamber of Trade and Commerce and the Ministry of Tourism have signed a bilateral MOU for combining efforts to promote tourism in the country.

We believe that without private sectorís participation and media support it is difficult to achieve our goals. And I am happy to share with you that our co-branding efforts have borne positive results. It is for the first time, yes first time in the history of Pakistan that the country in leveraging with Mobilink is being advertised on CNN and BBC, besides local media.

Q.3 Prime Minister had estimated that about one million foreign tourists would be visiting Pakistan during 2007. Will you be able to meet that target? If not, why?

Ans: All current trends confirm that tourist arrival will surge this year. The ministry is in the process of compiling tourist arrival figures, however, we are very hopeful not only to achieve the target but might exceed our target of hosting one million tourists this year.