Every day, Azhar Tanveer, 46, one of the scores of porters employed at Allama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore pushes at least 50 trolleys bearing the luggage of travellers in and out of the airport’s automated sliding doors. He has however never been past the check-in counters run by various airlines to which he pushes the heavy trolleys.
“I have never travelled outside Lahore myself. This is the city I was born in; this is where I have always lived,” he tells TNS. “Yes, when I see the travellers, I think I would like to travel. I see them arriving holding jackets, so the climate in other countries must be much cooler than the humid weather here. There must be things to see, but I can’t really imagine them,” says Azhar. He mentions England as a country he would especially like to visit because of what he has heard about it from people returning in terms of its beauty and opportunities.
Working at the airport alongside Azhar are two cleaners, Kamran and Kaiser, who have also never left Lahore. Each day, they clean up the rose petals and other debris that carpet the floor as visitors returning home from abroad are received fondly by relatives. “We are never going to get the opportunity to travel like them,” says Kaiser. They add they had heard of countries like Malaysia, Dubai, Bangladesh, and would most like to visit Canada, but knew they would never be able to do so.
Like almost all members of lower income groups in Pakistan, these persons, whose livelihoods are associated directly with travel and who have worked for years surrounded by the frequent roar of airplanes taking off just overhead, are unlikely to ever leave their own country. Others have travelled within Pakistan to destinations such as Murree. One of them is domestic worker Amna, who was able to take her three small children to a hillside resort for a few days last year with the help of her brother.
But for so many others, while their paths meet with those of travellers regularly, the opportunity to travel overseas rarely presents itself. While Hong Kong has the highest rate of tourists travelling outside the nation each year, Pakistan is amongst the countries with the lowest number of people leaving it for recreational purposes. Though not many precise figures are available, NADRA states only 30 million machine-readable passports have been issued in the country since their introduction in 2004. Of these, less than half have actually been used.
Many Pakistanis obtain passports hoping to travel but are restricted by many factors including the reality that the Pakistani passport is one of the worst on which to travel. According to the UK-based Henley Passport Index, the Pakistani passport is currently the fourth worst on which to travel based on the number of countries which allow Pakistanis visa-free entry. Only three war-torn countries — Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan — rank below Pakistan. The Index shows, however, a slight improvement in its position compared to previous years.
“I tried for a visa multiple times, after saving up enough money to visit Thailand,” says student Hira Tasneem. “But I was refused every time, maybe because I had no travel history and was a single woman with no major family links in Pakistan.”
There are also people who are quite certain they do not wish to leave the country, even if the opportunity is handed to them on a silver platter. One of these is Gohar Ali, a driver who some years ago was made an offer by his employer to travel to Malaysia with her daughter and help her settle into her new home there. However, after initial excitement, he refused. “I heard we would have to go aboard a plane. I will never travel anywhere in an airplane. There are so many stories on television of them falling out of the sky and crashing, killing everyone on board. I asked if there was a train I could go on but learnt the country was too far away, and there was none.”
He adds that he was not particularly keen to travel, and was quite happy at home. He has visited various places including Skardu, Chitral and Swat, but “life is comfortable and convenient here. This is not always the case in other countries. My own brother was treated miserably by his employer when he went to Dubai. His passport was taken away, and he was able to make an escape from his workplace, where he embroidered clothes, only after contacting the authorities in Dubai. This scared me even more.”
Ali is not alone in wanting to stay at home. Fauzia Khan, a cleaner at a hotel, says she spends all her time at home or at work, and would not be allowed by her family to travel. “Even if there was a way, I would be fired from my job if I took more than a few days off,” she explains.
Others are choosy about their destinations. Ahmed Bhatti, who today drives a Careem cab, has been to Dubai, but did not like the strictness of the rules and the environment there. He imagines a life of luxury and boundless beauty in places like New York or Canada, where he says he would like to go.
“Everything is perfect in such places. People are nice, and there are equal opportunities for everyone. If I work hard there, I will be able to make a lot of money,” he says. The Trump era and its brutal realities were perhaps not yet familiar to him.
The imagination of others appears to in some cases conjure up notions even farther from reality. Tariq, a young man from the Gujrat area, had for years believed the streets in Paris were made of glass. He wondered why they did not break, or how a city with glass streets would look. Later, when he visited the capital of France, he discovered that the Urdu word for glass, sheesha, closely resembled the word for lead in the same language, seesa. The streets, dating back to an age when horse-drawn carriages ran over them were indeed made from lead, but not the shimmering miles of glass he had imagined.
Others who may not otherwise have seen a destination outside their own country meet with opportunity through their own hard work and an element of luck. Hamza Malik, who would probably never have travelled abroad had it not been for the fact that he was a swimmer who made it to the Pakistan team, completed his first journey overseas last year to compete in the Asian Indoor Games in Turkmenistan. “At first, I was scared at the idea of plane travel, but my father encouraged me. Initially, I did not even know where to put the baggage, but I gained confidence quickly,” he tells TNS.
Hamza loved Ashgabat, mentioning the cleanliness and how helpful everyone was. He hopes to travel further in the future, using his swimming as a means to reach foreign destinations around the world.
There are not many in Pakistan then who get a ticket to ride. Some of course do not even seek a ticket, content in the life they have at home. Others yearn to travel, but know that numerous difficulties hold them back and even when they are closely connected with the travel industry, they recognise that they themselves are highly unlikely to ever board an airplane themselves.