The urge to travel is as old as the history of human civilisation. This urge of man to travel has given birth to a flourishing and ever prospering industry called tourism, which has emerged as the second largest manpower employment industry, after petroleum, at the global level.
The consolidation of tourism, over the past decades, constitutes one of the most positive socio-economic developments of our time. International tourist arrivals have grown from 25 million in 1950 to 808 million in 2005, jumping to 1.087 billion in 2013 and 1.133 billion in 2014, and the expansion continues unabated. In 2014, international tourism receipts reached US$1,245 billion against US$682 billion in 2005. Now, the trade volume in tourism makes it as one of the largest categories of international trade.
With its rich cultural heritage, nature’s extravagant bliss in the shape of high mountains, tall peaks, land mass under glaciers, high altitude fresh water lakes, spectacular green valleys, astonishing variety of landscapes, soft sandy warm water beaches and, above all, hospitable people, Pakistan has been richly endowed by nature to reap the benefits of the surge in tourism trade. From sandy deserts of Sindh, where the bustling city of Moenjodaro once stood in all its splendour, to the inspiring plains of the Punjab, the rugged mountains of Balochistan, the softy sandy warm water beaches along its coastal belt and, above all, the breathtaking beauty of the Northern Areas, Pakistan has every variety of beauty found on earth.
Three of the mighty mountain systems — the Hindukush, the Karakoram and the Himalayas — adorn Pakistan’s forehead, a country having a landmass stretching over 796,095 sq. km. Some 40 of the world’s 50 highest mountains and five of the 14 highest peaks are located in Pakistan. With an assemblage of 35 giant peaks over 7,315 metres Pakistan’s northern region is regarded as the climbers’ paradise. Many summits here are even higher than 7,925 metre, including 8,611 metre world’s second highest K-2 or Mt. Godwin Austin, which is only a few ropes short of the world’s tallest peak — Mt. Everest.
The passes in the region are rarely lower than Mount Blanc’s summit and several are over 5,485 metre. The highest trade route in the world, Karakoram Highway, passes through the region and connects Pakistan with China. Pakistan has more glaciers than any other land outside the Poles. At an altitude of 4,000 metre above sea level, the legendary Deosai plateau in the northern Pakistan is famous for its wild alpine flowers whose dozens of species blossom during spring.
The abundance of glaciers, large lakes and green valleys combine at places to produce holiday resorts, including Gilgit, Hunza, Baltistan and Yasin in the west and the valleys of Chitral, Dir, Kaghan and Swat in the east. Glistening silver rivulets meander though the valleys of Chitral, Dir, Kaghan and Swat, profusely dotting them with scenic spots, thick forests of pine and junipers and a vast variety of fauna and flora and earning the reputation of being the most enchanting tourist resorts on the earth.
Pakistan is also a citadel of Gandhara and some other well-known civilizations of the world. Inscribed upon the world heritage list, Julian and Sirkap remains near Taxilla have great attractions for visitors, particularly from Buddhists countries. The archaeological remains found in Taxilla, Peshawar, Charsadda, Takht Bhai, Swat, and rock-carving inscriptions along the ancient Silk Route has well recorded history of Gandhara civilization.
Motivated by a desire to show to the world Pakistan’s natural beauty and rich historical background dating back to many thousand years, Islamabad is keen to utilise the country’s great tourism potential for religious, cultural and archaeological tourists. As a sequel to these efforts, the Pakistan government declared, some years in the previous decade, including the years 2006 and 2007, as “Visit Pakistan Year.” On that occasion, Islamabad organised Gandhara Week to showcase Pakistan as a bastion of civilizations like Gandhara. In addition to many hundred thousand domestic tourists and students, the event attracted over 120 experts, tour operators and travel agents from China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Italy and some other countries.
Meanwhile, countries like Austria, France, Germany, Spain, USA, China, Italy, UK, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Mexico have emerged as tourist destinations on the world map and earn billions of dollars from the tourist trade. For instance, in the year2014, the USA earned $177.2 billion from the international tourism receipts, whereas Spain earned $ 65.2 billion, China $56.9 billion, France $55.4 billion, Macau $50.8 billion, Italy $45.5 billion, UK $45.3 billion, Germany $43.3 billion, Thailand $38.4 billion and Hong Kong $38.4 billion. The top 10 biggest spenders on international tourism, during the year 2014, included: China $164.9 billion, USA $110.8 billion, Germany $92.2 billion, UK $57.6 billion, Russia $50.4 billion, France $47.8 billion, Canada $33.8 billion, Italy $28.8 billion, Australia $26.3 billion and Brazil $25.6 billion.
When compared with top tourist attracting countries, despite huge tourism potential the figures for tourist arrivals in Pakistan is not impressive at all. About one million foreign tourists visited Pakistan during 2011, contributing US$367.8 million to the revenues. However, Pakistan’s tourism industry was in its heyday during the 1970s when the country received unprecedented amounts of foreign tourists, thanks to the Hippie Trail. The main destinations of choice for those tourists were Khyber Pass, Peshawar, Quetta, Karachi, Lahore, Swat and Rawalpindi.
If we wish to emerge as a tourist destination, we need to develop the “products,” i.e. necessary infrastructure for hassle-free travel to each and every tourist spot and equip those places for comfortable stay, sports and adequate entertainment so that visitors feel their journey and stay highly educative, informative and absorbing. After developing the product, if we project the country’s tremendous potential in the natural, adventurous, religious and historical tourism, we may, like other countries, start earning billions from this trade. This role should preferably be left to the professional stakeholders in the hospitality industry.
Furthermore, big hotels and restaurants need to be motivated to include cultural programmes amongst their regular fares. They could make a beginning with the folk dances, art and craft exhibitions. Such events have a spin off benefits both for the hospitality outlets and the country as tourists take snaps and use the photographs to illustrate their write-ups on the visit, creating a ripple effect not only for the growth of the industry but also for creating a soft image of the country.
The staff in the hospitality industry at various levels and tiers — national, provincial and district — needs to be imparted refresher courses; while tourist material on each and every tourist site/product should be prepared and widely distributed. Besides print, the publicity material should be made available on CDs and the websites.
If stakeholders in the tourism industry — the hoteliers, the airlines, the tourism staff — join hands and invite tourism writers/photographers, both national and foreign, as guests during lean months for visiting various places of tourist interest, the exercise would pay rich dividends if carried out on a sustained basis. Given Pakistan’s rich cultural heritage and natural assets, it should not be difficult for it to create a niche on the tourist map of the world.