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October 19, 2020

Pakistan’s untapped tourism potential


October 19, 2020

Despite its unparalleled natural beauty and abundance of historical and cultural sites, Pakistan has long been a prisoner of its own geography. Its history has been tumultuous since its very inception which has overshadowed its untapped, touristic potential.

But this is all set to change. In recent years, various prestigious organisations have highlighted the potential of Pakistan for tourism. In 2018, the British Backpacker Society ranked Pakistan as the top destination in the world for backpacking.

One of its founders, Samuel Joynson, ranked Pakistan first because it is “home to some of the world’s friendliest and most hospitable people, and offers some of the world’s most dramatic mountain scenery.” Indeed, Pakistanis are famously excellent hosts and travellers from abroad merely need to be exposed to Pakistanis to confirm this.

It was primarily for this adventure tourism that Pakistan continued to be celebrated and 2020 should have seen Pakistan reap the benefits of its natural beauty. Indeed, Pakistan’s northern mountainous regions have often been compared to those of Switzerland for its awesome scenery and potential for snow sports. But this progress was temporarily slighted by the pandemic which has seen global travel diminish to an unprecedented level.

However, top travel magazines have not forgotten about Pakistan. Condé Nast Traveller placed Pakistan at the top of the world’s destinations for 2021 as the “ultimate travel destination.” The magazine stated that: “Hardy visitors will find that little has changed since Mughal times – with the peaks’ gemstone mines, fairy meadows and winding trails…”

When a tourist thinks about top travel destinations and sites, they may think of the Vatican, the Pyramids of Giza and the Taj Mahal. But Pakistan has the added advantage of authenticity, with sites that can rival the aforementioned but lack the damage and pollution that accompanies large influxes of tourists.

Pakistan boasts six UNESCO sites across the country, including the Buddhist Ruins of Takht-i-Bahi and the Lahore Fort. The diversity of these sites is what places Pakistan in a prestigious league because it has such a rich cultural and religious history. The bright future ahead for Pakistan is signalled by the growing tentative list for possible nominations to UNESCO, including national parks and archaeological sites.

The positive tourist rankings and the strength of the heritage sites have also been accompanied by changing policies which enable tourists, particularly from the UK, to travel to Pakistan with greater ease. On the 24th January 2020, the UK government announced that it had altered its travel advice to Pakistan “to reflect the improved security situation in Pakistan.” This means that the sections where advice against all travel was prescribed have been reduced and alternative routes have been opened to British travellers.

Similarly, Virgin Atlantic announced in August of this year that there would be a new series of flights from London and Manchester to Islamabad and Lahore. Virgin cited the substantial British diaspora in Pakistan, and vice versa, as well as access to top UNESCO sites in Pakistan as reasoning behind the new series. This will hail not only a new era of accessible tourism between the two countries but also a boost in trade links and diplomatic ties.

The arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to Pakistan in late 2019 was also perceived as a turning point in the history of tourism to the country. The Royal Couple were able to display the greatest strengths of Pakistan, including the hospitality of its people and the distinctive nature of the country’s identity which is so beautifully diverse. After all, if one of the most famous couples in the world can enjoy a safe trip to Pakistan, why can’t anyone else?

It has been a great injustice to the people of Pakistan that the country has been blighted by inaccurate and misleading stereotypes. When tourists return from Pakistan, most laud the sites, the people and the food as some of the best in the world. This is certainly a far cry from the images that many outsiders have sought to proliferate about Pakistan.

It is a blessing that Pakistan is finally receiving recognition for its touristic potential. The country cannot be reduced to cricket or religious extremism, as many might have you believe. Rather, it is a treasure trove of adventure, beauty and intrigue that is waiting to be discovered and celebrated to the level it deserves.

The writer has just completed her MTheol degree at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and now works as a researcher.

Twitter: @MaryFloraHunter