On the tourism radar

February 17, 2019

There are few places today where couchsurfing hasn’t spread and Pakistan is no exception

On the tourism radar

Amid heated debates and tragic headlines, we don’t get to hear this often but inside the exclusive circles of adventurers and backpackers, Pakistan is widely known as a ‘heaven on earth’. The country is the ultimate destination for all those craving a breath of fresh air in the midst of lush green fields, incredible mountain ranges and bustling streets of crowded cities. Pakistan has a special something for everyone.

As a fortunate consequence of the new, relaxed visa policy, which enables more tourists to get e-visas and visas-on-arrival, an increased number of interested travellers will be looking into what Pakistan has to offer as a tourist destination.

Most adventurists prefer getting their information from the internet as a more reliable and interpersonal source. With the provincialisation of tourism in Pakistan, websites such as Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) and the National Tourist Organizations (NTO) are currently "Under Construction". In an official capacity, Pakistan does not follow a standardised tourism policy. Local adventurist, Wajahat Malik explains, "Unlike other countries we do not follow a specific slogan or policy of tourism. The provinces each have their own, all over the place, agenda that fails to show up on international forums".

Luckily, the local and international travellers of Pakistan have taken it upon themselves to show the world what Pakistan has to offer and to help plan memorable trips. Lucas Klamert, an experienced traveller based in Vienna, Austria, visited the "culturally interesting and adventurous destination" in August 2018. According to him, the country had been on his radar for a long time but it was the travel blogs about the Rakaposhi basecamp track and the Fairy meadows that finally inspired him to zip up his backpack and couch surf across Pakistan.

The online presence of Pakistani tourism has tremendously increased in the past few years. The Mad Hatters is the ultimate online location for adventure seekers, risk takers, and avid explorers looking for a journey into some of the less explored areas of Pakistan for a truly thrilling experience. The organisation, created in 2017, plans trips and tours for both foreign and local adventurists.

Similar to this, the Karakoram Club is a group of photographers and trekkers that aim to highlight the northern areas of Pakistan through capturing their experiences and showcasing them to their online audience. The Pakistan Tour and Travel Company based in Rawalpindi is another example. This tour agency operating in the northern areas of Pakistan offers a series of planned trips to destinations such as Hunza, Gilgit, and Skardu. Another initiative called the Epic Backpacker Tours (formerly Broke Backpacker Adventure Tours) got off the ground in 2016 when the co-founder Will Hatt led their first adventure tour into the mountains of Pakistan.

Instagram, which is currently one of the most popular photo and video sharing social networking services, has seen an increased number of accounts dedicated to sharing the breathtaking scenic beauty of Pakistan. Accounts, such as ‘travelbeautifulpakistan’, regularly post aesthetically pleasing pictures of northern Pakistan that leave their two hundred and three thousand followers in absolute awe of the tourist destinations in Pakistan. A similar account with the Instagram handle ‘picturepakistan’ does the same and has taken in 10,991 submissions from all over Pakistan using the hashtag #picturepakistan. It is through these accounts that more and more people get to learn about the relativity undiscovered travel destination.

Pakistan, with its underdeveloped tourism industry, tends to attract only the true risk-takers and thrill-seekers. These thoroughly researched, passionate travellers often have a strong following, especially through their online blogs. Christian, an avid traveller based in Norway, runs a blog called ‘Unusual Traveler’. His blog features Pakistan as "a country you never hear anything good about in the media, but that´s a shame since Pakistan is a country with incredible beauty with the high Karakoram Mountains, the crystal clear rivers, breathtaking nature, one of the best road trips in the world along the Karakoram Highway".

Similarly, Stephan Gollan runs a blog called the ‘Uncharted Backpacker’ through which he shares his 11 years of globetrotting. On the blog, Gollan has covered his trip to the Hunza Valley and titles it as the ‘land of the immortals’. Joan Torres, a traveller based in Spain, also runs a blog under the name ‘Against the Compass’ which provides in depth travel tips and information to all those interested in travelling to Pakistan.

Other than independent initiatives, such as travel blogs and Instagram accounts, more well-known avenues such as the ‘Trip Advisor’ and the ‘Lonely Planet’ exist to give tourists a general orientation of the place. The Trip Advisor includes many recent updates from profiles operated by people who have visited Pakistan lately. There are 55,625 reviews and opinions available. These include food bloggers such Mark Weins, based in Thailand, who creates extensive content on the street food in Pakistan. His profile is coloured by intriguing topics such as "21 best dishes to eat when you’re in Pakistan", "Pakistani street food – Fish Katakat at Mashallah in Karachi" and "A must eat tour of Karachi". The videos and pictures of Karachi’s famous street food no doubt make you hungry, they also fill you up with an undeniable urge to drop everything and rush to the streets of Karachi.

Profiles such as the ‘Business Insider’ and the ‘National Geographic’ include Pakistan in articles such as "7 epic trips for people who love adventure" and "20 spectacular mountains around the world that you need to see in your lifetime". Going through these accounts on Trip Advisor, Pakistan becomes a true must-see destination.

For the free spirited thrill seekers, who plan on coming to Pakistan, internet serves as the go-to place for making their trip an unforgettable experience. The personal blogs, websites and social media accounts attract an increasing amount of people to the heaven on earth.

More work, however, needs to be done on creating internationally available travel guides and advertisements. With the new visa policy in place, the government must also work on creating online avenues for the explorers and adventurers. While private initiatives are trying best to attract tourists, they can only go so far. "Private stakeholders have their own agendas. Some are concerned with profits and others with the amount of ‘likes’ they get. Only the government can formulate a standard, carefully planned policy to further promote tourism," explains Wajahat Malik.

While websites run by the provincial departments do exist, they only serve to facilitate potential visitors instead of actively attracting or promoting the tourist destinations of Pakistan. While referring to the new visa policy, Ahmer Malick, Managing Director TDCP, elaborates that the government has already taken important steps. As far as the government is concerned, it only aims to facilitate the tourists already visiting the country. Promotion is "primarily a private affair, completely up to private stake holders".

Fortunately, tourism is on the PTI government’s agenda. "Pakistan is blessed with a lot of tourist spots… this can result in billions of dollars’ worth of tourism," said Prime Minister Imran Khan last month. One hopes, the PM’s commitment to tap the full potential of the industry may increase Pakistan’s online presence, which would consequently make the heaven on earth a popular tourist destination among globetrotters.

On the tourism radar