What’s new in the interior ministry’s policy to issue group-visa-on-arrival for citizens of selected countries?
Pakistan’s renewed resolve to issue group-visa-on-arrival for tourists is being widely welcomed but there are several issues that still need improvement to promote tourism in a better way. This relatively liberal visa policy is facing opposition from within the ruling party of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.
But it’s not just the former Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan who has expressed reservations; many tour operators think it is somewhat vague and needs clarity before its implementation.
This visa relaxation policy was also announced in Pervez Musharraf’s regime, before 9/11 in which the same 24 countries’ citizens were offered group-visa-on-arrival facility. However, according to many tour operators, the policy was discontinued without any proper notification. Later, in April 2017, the then Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan formally suspended this policy, and the news made headlines across the world. The suspension of visa-on-arrival for foreigners was aimed to streamline the visa regime and avoid alleged irregularities in the database with the promise to introduce "online visa regime" for further transparency, according to press reports.
Khan publicly opposed the renewal of the policy by his successor Ahsan Iqbal on the floor of National Assembly on January 25. He said he had revoked the visa-on-arrival policy because it had been massively misused in the past, especially during the Musharraf regime.
"We merely removed the loopholes from the previous visa policy and rationalised it. All the security checks will remain in place," Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal tells The News on Sunday. "It was necessary to take reasonable steps to improve the economy, promote tourism and create better image of the country."
Only a few weeks ago, the British Backpacker Society declared Pakistan to be the world’s leading adventure travel destination because Pakistan’s mountainous scenery is the most stunning and has no comparison in this world. The society said that Pakistan offers the "real, genuine travel experience" and Pakistan’s northern areas; its peaks and mountains are amongst "the most beautiful places on this earth". The society urged Pakistan to opt for a liberal visa regime for tourists.
The United Nations’ World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) representatives, recently, declared Pakistan as the best suited country for tourism with a need to improve its image through correct projection in the world.
Tour operators and other such forums always urge Pakistan to adopt a liberal visa policy and remove unnecessary hurdles to promote tourism and attract foreign tourists. Many say it is not being able to break the glass ceiling because of the no visa-on-arrival facility. It is not like foreign tourists from these countries fly to Pakistan and gets entry for 30 days on arrival. The group-tourists from the said countries have to complete the process by compulsorily engaging themselves with designated tour operators amid restricted freedom to explore the country.
The Ministry of Interior, towards the end of January, announced a visa-free entry for a two-dozen countries, aiming to increase the tourist base. According to the list, the citizens of 24 Tourist Friendly Countries (TFC) can avail this facility through designated and licensed tour operators in Pakistan. The countries include United States of America, United Kingdom, Canada, China, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Thailand and Sweden.
There is also conditional visa-on-arrival facility for business tourists from 68 countries, listed on the interior ministry’s website.
To be eligible for this offer, the tour needs to be organised by designated tour operators in Pakistan. Once they select a tour operator, the rest of the work will be done by them. The operator is responsible for all necessary documentation along with an undertaking to the immigration office. The concerned tour operator will also submit an undertaking to the effect that the tourists will be their responsibility and will not illegally overstay beyond the validity of visa. If required, the same tour operators will apply, before expiry of visa, for further extension of up to 30 days. The concerned tour operators will submit a confirmation about the exit of the said tourists.
Interestingly, the ministry of interior’s website does not give detailed information on the subject. The list of tour operators given on the ministry website is obsolete. Many phone numbers are already disconnected. It seems the policy has been launched in haste and without proper homework. The staff on the given helpline to seek information about visa-on-arrival also knows nothing about the policy and directs one to the ministry.
"We welcome this policy and call the government to bring more clarity and openness into it," says Yousaf Akhtar, a tour operator from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where the mesmerising northern areas fall. "There is need to revise the old list of registered/licensed tour operators for facilitating visa-on-arrival. Also, there is need for clarity on how to take foreign tourists into the restricted areas. And even there is no proper definition of "group" in the visa-on-arrival."
Akhtar says "there is still no policy guideline or proper notification available to registered the tour operators about the subject. There are so many questions that need a clear answer."
Muhammad Ali, an Islamabad-based tour operator and Joint Secretary of Pakistan Association of Tour Operators (PATO), thinks "this is really an encouraging step. Previously, this policy was halted without any prior information to the tour operators. We also need a better visa-policy".
Ali refers to neighbouring India, Nepal and other developed countries like America and China which have focused policies that boost their economies giving value to tourism. "After devolution, tourism industry has become a provincial subject; so there is need for a federal regulatory authority to bring coherence in tourism polices."
According to Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC), conditions for tourism in Pakistan have been improving gradually for the past few years, owing largely to a better security situation, and the number of foreign tourists is on the rise. However, travel advisories and lack of facilitation in the issuance of visa are considered key reasons for not being able to attract foreign tourists and letting the tourism industry properly flourish.