Tourism is a remarkable – and relatively easy – tool for not only boosting a country’s revenue but also promoting a nation’s soft image across the globe. To mark the importance of tourism, every year World Tourism Day is celebrated on September 27 to remind countries and eager travellers why tourism is important to “foster cultural exchange, economic growth and sustainable development”. This year, given the challenges created by climate change, countries are also interested in promoting sustainable tourism. While local communities have also welcomed tourism since it acts as a source of good income, the challenges of ‘overtourism’ have consistently surfaced, forcing governments to think about how to strike a balance between converting a place to be ideal for short-term travel and also managing the sensitivities of local communities. Pakistan is a lesser-known tourist destination and is not yet dominated by thousands of backpackers and weekenders rolling their suitcases in all corners, but its picturesque mountains and valleys are frequently visited by domestic tourists.
There have been a few voices from within the communities settled in the mountains against tourists’ contemptuous dismissal of local people’s fears and concerns. In 2021, a musical festival held in Hunza drew people’s ire, who claimed that such practices destroy the culture and beauty of the city. Harassment cases in Kalash – reported in 2018 – are another example of tourists’ lack of cultural sensitivity. When promoting these areas for tourism, it is important for the government to make such places safe for visitors. In a country with scarce entertainment options, travelling should be a relaxing activity, allowing people to explore the hidden gems of their countries.
In addition to paying attention to these cultural sensitivities, the government must also work to develop infrastructures that do not collapse under pressure. In January 2022, a snowstorm in Murree led to severe traffic jams, and eventually to the wholly tragic and avoidable death of dozens of tourists who died after inhaling the poisonous gases emitted from their car heaters. Such a tragedy could have been avoided had there been checks in place to manage the tourist load and clear the roads timely. It is on the government to learn lessons from the past horrible mistakes and build a reliable system to promote safe tourism in the country. There is also a need to check the real-estate sector from building structures that go against the topography of Pakistan’s tourist destinations; our hill stations were not meant for glamourous and resource-greedy five-star hotels. Perhaps what authorities in Pakistan should be more focused on is how to tap into this sector and generate much-needed foreign exchange reserves while also preserving the natural beauty of these regions – the reason the tourism potential is there in the first place.