From the mighty Himalayan Mountains in the northern areas (now Gilgit-Baltistan) – crowned with world’s highest mountains and longest deep-rooted glaciers in a knot of four mountain ranges outside polar region – to the serene beaches making the 1046 km long coastline in the south bordering the Arabian Sea, the country is enormously rich in wealth of attractions – a source for flourishing Tourism in Pakistan.

Geography and Accessibility:

Spread over an area of 796,095 km², Pakistan, a country of approximately190 million people from diverse cultural backgrounds, is poised at a strategic location on the globe. To the northeast it has 585km border with China connected through the KKH at 4,733m Khunjerab Pass. Likewise, to the southeast Pakistan has 2,912km border with India accessible through Wahga border in Lahore. Similarly, to the north and northeast Pakistan has 2,252km Durand line with Afghanistan. The legendary Khyber Pass from Peshawar in Pakistan connects Afghanistan. Finally, Pakistan shares a 909km long southwestern border with Iran and accessible by road via Taftan. To the south, there is only 1046km long coastal line bordering the Arabian Sea.

By air, Pakistan is accessible from number of international destinations by various airlines. PIA (Pakistan International Airlines) is the national flag career having direct flights to US, Canada, Europe, Middle East, and China. Likewise, international airlines including Emirates, Qatar airways, Etihad airways, Thai airways, Gulf air, Turkish airline, Kuwait airways, Saudi air, Sri Lankan airlines etc. fly to Pakistan’s major international airports including Islamabad, Lahore, Peshawar, and Karachi from major international destinations.

Historic background of Tourism in Pakistan

Since the very inception of Tourism sector, after partition of the subcontinent, it did not get its due space to grow in full capacity. Tourism remained part of the Ministry of Railways till 1955 and later functioned under Ministry of Commerce till 1964, before it was made part of Civil Aviation Department. After the creation of Tourism Development Corporation of Pakistan (TDCP) and Ministry of Tourism in 1972, tourism received a temporary attention in policy making but again in 1976 it was dragged to perform under the Ministry of Commerce. Later, between 1977 and 1996 tourism remained the part of Ministry of Culture, Sports & Tourism until a separate Ministry of Tourism was created in 2004.

However, in the 18th amendment Tourism Ministry was devolved to the provinces simply to be neglected. No any due attention and solid steps were taken on part of the state to draw benefit from this most rewarding sector practically though much has been boasted in papers.

Flow of Tourism in Pakistan

Tourism in Pakistan enjoyed its heydays during the 70s, 80s and until mid 90s when the country received record number of international tourists from all over the world, mostly from Europe and America. It was the time when international tourists would frequently travel to Pakistan without any reservation and need for invitation. It was also the time Pakistan was considered a hot tourists destination for its scenic natural beauty and alluring cultural heritage.

Major tourist attractions to fascinate international tourists included monuments and beachside in Karachi, the Mughal treasure in Lahore, the legendary Khyber Pass in Peshawar, ancient Taxila ruins in the heart of the country, and old bazaars of Rawalpindi. Besides, Chaukandi tombs, Makli hills, Shah Jahan mosque in Thatta, Ruins at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, Palaces and Forts in Bahawalpur, Shrines in Multan, Buddhist treasure in Swat, Rohtas fort, and Salt mines were among the must visit tourist sites for culture lovers.

Likewise, for adventure enthusiasts exploring the scenic valleys of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral, traveling to the alluring Kalash tribe, the fascinating journey along the KKH leading to Pak-China border at Khunjerab, and taking up trekking & mountaineering expeditions through the famous routes in the northern mountain kingdom have been the famous activities of foreign tourists.

Due to the flow of international tourism, a diverse range of businesses flourished rapidly in Pakistan. Stakeholders including airlines, hotels, restaurants, travel companies, tour operators, tour guides, transporters, museums, forts, ancient sites, souvenir shops, vendors, and a number of tourist attractions continued to grow and enjoyed a steady stream of income. The trend of international tourism also helped other businesses grow indirectly and the country enjoyed an aura of prosperity and happiness so more than two decades.

 The downfall of international tourism:

The turn of the century proved unfortunate for the tourism industry of Pakistan and distorted the whole scenario. Some inauspicious occurrences, particularly the ill-fated incident of 9/11, which proved to be a devastating episode in the history of the tourism industry of Pakistan, lead to a decline in international tourist arrivals. The sheer drop observed in the influx of international tourism following 9/11 and the subsequent launch of “war on terror”, which broadcasted the impression to the potential markets around the world as Pakistan a major harbor of terrorism, lead to change the whole mechanism of tourism business in the country.

The decline in inbound tourism led most leading tour operators and stakeholders to reduce the field of operations or closed down the fading businesses gradually. At the same time destinations and businesses suffered poorly in the major tourist destinations. This phenomenon loomed as a gloomy aura in the tourism industry. No major immediate step was taken at any level to revive international tourism. The image of the country on the international front had altogether changed.

Realistically, there seemed no strong basis to uphold Pakistan as a tourist destination when the whole world saw the state as a chaotic destination. Pakistan was amongst the few countries that suffered most because of war on terror. It was a time of uncertainty. Most of it was only because of the biased media that fabricated and exaggerated a false notion about Pakistan on the international front. This exaggeration brought with it a hard time for the government, tourism stakeholders, and for the public at large.

Attempts for revival of tourism

Some specific attempts, however, at home and abroad were instigated to fascinate international tourism much later. The pioneering step was taken, following the devastating earthquake of 2005, was by “The Guardian” by releasing “The top five tourist sites in Pakistan” in order to help the country’s dwindling tourism industry. These sites included Taxila, Lahore, Lake Saif ul Muluk, Karakoram Highway and Karimabad.

Likewise, in 2007 Pakistan launched “Visit Pakistan” marketing campaign which involved year-long organizing of various events including fairs and festivals, sporting events, different arts and craft shows, folk festivals and numerous openings of historical museums.

Similarly, in 2009, The World Economic Forum’s Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report ranked Pakistan as one of the top 25% tourist destinations for its World Heritage sites. This credible international level ranking had positive implications on the overall image of the country.

The outcome of these successive efforts resulted in 1.1 million foreign tourist arrivals in the year 2011 and almost 1 million in 2012. However, tourism again portrayed a picture of a negative growth gradually. It might, however, be more because of global economic crisis than for anything else.

Role of Stakeholders

Private tour operators left no stone unturned to maintain connections with international markets either by promoting destinations from home using electronic and social media or by physically participating in mega international tourism fairs including ITB, WTM, and a number of other mega exhibitions. Through participation in these events, tour operators have been able to secure some business to survive.

It goes without saying that the most effective role Pakistani missions abroad could and still can play to attract international tourism by promoting the country’s remarkable destinations and that is also the need of time. It is possible by adding an informative section on tourism on their respective embassy website featuring information on tourism attractions in Pakistan. Moreover, Pakistani embassies and consulates overseas can also help boost tourism by ensuring their participation in mega tourism fairs. The most important step Pakistani missions abroad can take is by softening visa granting process.

Today if our neighboring countries enjoy boom of tourism it is most because of the continuous efforts their tourism ministries play at international level. China, India, Iran, and Nepal, for example, earn a good chunk of foreign exchange from tourism only because of the keen interest of their respective governments in boosting tourism sector, formulation of tourism-friendly policies, and effectively marketing their destinations by exhibiting their attractions in a professional manner. There is a dire need for the state tourism department to efficiently market the tourism treasure in Pakistan using essential media.

However, unless there is a strong government backing to ensure internal peace and exhibit the country’s tourism products efficiently, private tour operators’ endeavor alone will never be sufficient. Moreover, in order to boost tourism in Pakistan, there is also a dire need of public-private partnership at home which in many countries is playing a pivotal role to enhance tourism and derive enormous economic benefits.

Our competitors and their allies would try hard to portray Pakistan a failure state by investing in activities which directly discourage international tourism flow to Pakistan and malign the image of the state at an international platform. This would most times result in regulating travel advisories by the countries considered potential markets for Pakistan. Ultimately, the flow of inbound tourism tends to shrink which further leads to limited foreign exchange earnings for the country.

Tourist Attractions in Pakistan

Pakistan is abundantly blessed in all aspects of tourist attractions and has a unique potential for attracting international tourists. Within a latitudinal difference of 0 to 8611m, from the Arabian Sea to the summit of K2 (the highest mountain peak in Pakistan), a rich cultural heritage and a diverse landscape vibrantly boast its beauty. The country’s captivating landscapes, scenic valleys, burning vast deserts, golden beaches, tranquil lakes, gushing rivers, four distinct seasons, flora and fauna, diverse cultures, charming history, ancient ruins, and alluring manmade attractions make Pakistan a destination of choice.

The Coastal Highway from Karachi to Gawadar and further to Jiwani is packed with attractions. The golden beaches at Sonmiani, Kund Malir and Ormara, the Princess of Hope, the Sphinx, Hingol National Park, Buzzi wildlife sanctuary and Gwadar city are some of the attractions one can enjoy while traveling along the highway. The wetland making a unique bird sanctuary at Jiwani is an added beauty.

Sindh is rich in Heritage. Start with exploring Karachi. The beach site, Museum, Mazar-e-Quaid, Frare Hall, Quaid-e-Azam museum house, Mohatta Palace, Tooba mosque, Clifton beach, and Hawks bay are some of the prominent sites to visit.  While traveling north from Karachi to Punjab via N-5 National Highway one can come across countless of attractions. Chaukandi Tombs, Makli Hills, Helji Lake, Keenjhar Lake, Lake Manchar, Bhanbor,

Pakistan also has the leverage of being a country hosting six of the world heritage sites and almost three times as many are on the wait list. All these sites have an international recognition and are a reason to attract international tourists.

The fact that only the physical environment is not the viable solution to attract international tourists, there also has to be an amicable social environment for a country to be tourism friendly. What tourists expect on a foreign land is the best value for their money. This is only possible when all the essentials of pleasure are made available to the tourists with least invasion on their privacy without compromising on our cultural values. There has to be a balance between tourist demand and our cultural values.

Recent Developments in tourism sector in Pakistan

Obviously, there are hurdles in promoting tourism in Pakistan but there have also been gradual developments most recently. With tireless efforts of Pakistan army, the successful operation Zarb-e-Azb had great repercussions on the overall internal stability in the country. The operation led to improved law and order situation and stability in the affected parts of the country. Pakistan seems to have regained the lost glory after a long period of uncertainty which is a great omen for the tourism industry in Pakistan.

Likewise, the Karakoram Highway (KKH) which was considered to be a great lure to attract international tourists has now been reconstructed. It embraces a rich treasure of attractions for tourists traveling along the highway from Hasanabdal all the way to Pak-China border at Khunjerab. Lush green fields, waterfalls and creeks, valleys, snow-capped mountain peaks, glaciers, historic monuments, Petroglyphs, and people with diverse cultural background are all part of this highway. The recent reconstruction of the highway paved the way to international tourists, including Chinese tourists, to visit Pakistan through Khunjerab. This will result in a boom of tourism to Pakistan in general and Gilgit-Baltistan in particular in the coming years.

Gondogoro La, a famous pass at 5,585m altitude was subject to NOC and full expenses of a liaison officer which most times resulted in cancellation because of formalities and high costs. Recently the condition of accompanying liaison officer has been lifted and the process has been made easy which has made it easy for tour operators to promote the famous route for international tourists.

Foreign tourists will no longer need no-objection certificate (NOC) to travel to Malakand Division. The statement issued by Tourism Corporation Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (TCKP) was a major initiative to promote tourism. All foreign tourists now no longer need NOC to travel to Swat, Chitral and other areas of KPK province.