WAR ON TERROR TAKES TOLL ON TOURISM
SHABBIR H. KAZMI
Mar 21 - 27, 2011
Earnings from Pakistan's rich tourism sector have been badly affected due to of inadequate facilities to the tourists and shabby infrastructure at destinations capable of attracting the largest number of visitors. Despite the fact that the country is blessed with some of the fascinating sties, earnings from tourism failed to surpass US$200 million.
Ministry of tourism attributes the plunge in activities to ongoing military operations and weakening law and order, 2010 floods and 2005 earthquake that badly hit tourism infrastructure in the northern areas of the country's north and Azad Jammu & Kashmir. Many of the tourist resorts have been razed to rubble in these areas. Roads, bridges and other basic infrastructure have been destroyed. However, experts of the tourism sector still believe that the negative trends in tourism industry could be revered by following prudent policies.
Najib Khan, who runs an Islamabad based travel agency, had said at one occasion "Our tourism suffers from manmade disasters, not natural ones because we have never taken this crucial sector seriously." Revenue generation through tourism alone can earn a great deal of revenues and lessen the economic woes of the country to a large extent. He cited examples of Malaysia, Singapore, Tanzania, Mauritius and other African countries that generate billions of dollars through tourism. In Malaysia, tourism is the second largest revenue generation sector after manufacturing.
Pakistan has been placed 14th on the list of Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index, according to the latest report on Travel & Tourism Competitiveness published by the World Economic Forum. Pakistan has slipped by 12 places over the two years. Contrary to the popular perception, Pakistan's tourism industry has never been a booming one even in the pre-war on terror days.
The decline in the number of travelers and the tourism receipts has come at a time when the industry is booming throughout the world in general and in Asia in specific reaching all time highs. The most obvious reason has been the precarious security situation and the ongoing war in the northern areas. The report ranks Pakistan 2nd in the countries having the higher cost of terrorism.
Some experts say that the lack of efforts made by both the government and the private sector to attract tourists and identify potential venues and market them in an effective manner are the key reasons. The security issue is a recent phenomenon but tourism for the most part in 90s received little to no attention as there were no efforts made to work on infrastructure and tourism policies to attract the travelers. The same old issues of hygiene, health, environment, corruption among others are responsible for the low inflow of visitors than the law and order situation. No wonder, Pakistan's rank is 134 out of 139 countries, when it comes to businessman extending their trip for leisure purposes, as the incentives are not enticing enough to take that big a risk.
One may argue that the worsening law and order situation is an external factor and largely uncontrollable, but there are other factors which are entirely controllable. Pakistan is blessed with a rich cultural heritage and enjoys a respectable 29th position in the world having eight cultural heritages of global recognition. What lacks is the image building, the story telling and the marketing efforts around most of the heritages, which result in them being unnoticed and their conditions deteriorating with each passing day.
Moreover, Pakistan also has the selling feature of low hotel pricing index and purchasing power parity where it is ranked 11th and 8th respectively. The air transport infrastructure too does well on various indicators but lacks direct flights to tourism destinations - making it a difficult route for the tourist as the road transport infrastructure is still far behind the global benchmarks.
There have been some steps taken by the Gilgit Baltistan government to promote tourism as the area is regarded relatively safer than a few of KP tourist destinations. The government needs to realize the importance of tourism as an industry which can not only help generate revenue, but will also help in image building at a very nominal cost low. Losing hope on the security situation will only make matters worse.
The US-led war on terror has had an impact on Pakistan's tourism sector. Thousands of civilians and security officials have been killed since early 2002. The Afghan Taliban destroyed the two world-famous giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan in 2001. In Pakistan, many of the Buddhist sites in the northern region are located in areas at the center of conflict.
According to the ministry of tourism, the war on terror has kept foreign tourists away. Most of the westerners believed that Gilgit and Hunza were in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and confused it with the conflict in Swat where Pakistan army was sweeping on the ground. Then came the floods and later the Attabad lake disaster. While all these factors had done enough damage, the government did little. The rehabilitation program to fix infrastructure or help the hotel owners, tour operators and transporters by providing them some kind of financial backing to keep the industry running has been far from satisfactory.
Tourism industry experts say lack of infrastructure and delay on part of the government in developing tourist resorts had been one of the reasons for the drop in not just foreign but local tourist traffic that was the backbone of the industry. Tourists and excursionists are forced to opt for safer areas for rest and relaxation because access to these places has almost been impossible.
Despite being once listed as one of the most dangerous countries in the world, Pakistan offers many opportunities in tourism because of its diverse cultures, peoples, and landscapes. The variety of attractions ranges from the ruins of ancient civilizations such as Mohenjo-Daro, Harappa, and Taxila, to the Himalayan hill-stations that attract those interested in field and winter sports. Pakistan also has five out of fourteen mountain peaks of height over 8,000 meters (26,250 ft) that attract adventurers and mountaineers from around the world. From April to September, domestic and international visitors to these areas bring tourist income to the local people. Let us write a new chapter in the history and mark 2011 the year of tourism.