There was a time when Pakistan was one of the leading countries on the tourist trail. This station slowly unravelled since the 1980s when Pakistan began to be known more for religious extremism and violence. The PTI government has taken the bold step of attempting to open Pakistan up as a tourist destination once again. On Thursday, Prime Minister Imran Khan unveiled an ambitious plan regarding tourism and investment from around the world. In the first step, Pakistan’s new visa policy will now allow foreign nationals from 175 countries to apply for three-month e-visas. The decision on the visas will be taken within seven to 10 working days. There is no doubt that the move signals a major change in Pakistan’s closed visa policy. Khan pointed to how visa policies became stricter in Pakistan after the 1960s, which led to Pakistan falling out of the tourist trail. Khan also pointed to the new visa regime as proof that Pakistan has dealt with its security issues.
There is no doubt that the confidence and political will behind such a move is to be appreciated. Pakistan’s potential for tourism and investment has always been there. The prime minister has also pointed to how Pakistan’s northern regions are double the size of Switzerland and how the country has a high potential for religious tourism for Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs. Pakistan is also host to some of the oldest and most developed civilisations in history. There is no doubt that Pakistan could be brought onto the world map – and it is a positive sign that the government has pushed aside decades of fear. The PM has pointed to the right places: Pakistan’s 800km coastline, unmatched skiing slopes, some of the highest mountains. If exploited for tourism, they could bring billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of tourists to Pakistan. The reduction of visa fees and provision of loans for tourism development are great steps.
However, the phased approach should raise questions. The first phase starting next week only opens up the country to six countries, with some of them already benefiting from easy visa policies. The promise of five-year business visas within 24 hours is a good measure, but one will have to see how the requisite infrastructure is put in place. The trouble is how to change decades of institutionalised fear of foreigners. While the Pakistani public has always been open to visitors from abroad, the same cannot be said of the state. One would expect that the government can do this job, but there is a bigger task that it will need to perform. Two decades of terrorism have left Pakistan’s image in tatters from the perspective of security. The eyes of the world will be watching as Pakistan attempts to open itself again. The importance of changing Pakistan’s international image is essential to opening up tourism and investment once again.