Change will come, one location at a time, if Pakistan works on the idea of conscious travel and not gloss over the reality
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government seems to be tapping the immense ‘Instagrammability’ potential of idyllic destinations in Pakistan by inviting social media influencers to travel across the country and holding tourism summits where bloggers are invited to talk about all things good in Pakistan - to improve Pakistan’s international image and increase the contribution of tourism to the GDP.
Smart move, one would say - to keep the country’s tourism sector in sync with modern times and to allow it to become an internet youth craze. For young, aspiring, wealthy millennials, Instagramability of a destination means everything and the eternal quest for social approval the main motivation. The five mighty eight-thousanders, serene lakes, historic Mughal architecture, pristine beaches and ruins dating back to ancient civilisations provide that pristine backdrop for a perfect shot worthy of a thousand likes.
"Nowadays most of the travellers in the world are millennials who use and believe in social media. They trust key opinion leaders in social media more than the traditional media," says Trinity, Indonesia’s leading travel writer and blogger who was invited by the embassy in Indonesia to visit Pakistan, with all travel expenses paid. "In return I have to promote [the tourism potential of Pakistan] on my blog and social media, and be a speaker at a tourism presentation in Jakarta." Her Instragram profile ‘trinitytraveler’ has ‘100K’ followers.
Trinity joined many others invited to boost the image of the country. Among them to Drew Binsky, who thought, "Along with Iran, Pakistan is the world’s most misconceived and misunderstood country"; Rosie Gabrielle whose mission was "…to show you – just how SAFE it is here"; Trevor James who while visiting Peshawar posted, "…coming into street food like this was solely worth it!". Eva Zu Beck, Alex, Mark Weins and some others wandered around and made their own observations. In some cases private travel companies have paid them for their brand endorsements.
Pakistan’s own celebrities like actor Hamza Ali Abbasi and cricketer Muhammed Hafeez have also been invited to endorse tourism to bolster Pakistan’s international image.
If you were to take time off to cheer yourself up in these dark times of price hikes and frenetic politics, their posts won’t disappoint you - a snow-clad peak peeping through the floating clouds in Gilgit Baltistan, a river flowing in rage through the green valleys of Azad Kashmir, intricate geometric and floral frescos at Mughal heritage sites… The easily influenced will see these pictures and want to flock to Pakistan. Because, "It’s all a matter of optics," says Aneeqa Ali, founder The Mad Hatter, a platform for adventure seekers.
But for a grumpy traveller tired of travelling fashionably and comfortably, these posts go to show just how ineffective the influencer’s lens is in portraying the true human experience. Such blogs don’t talk about the lack of infrastructure; the broken roads that may delay your arrival in Hunza, Gilgit Baltistan by hours; the close-to-no availability of clean toilets and hygienic food on the way. They don’t tell you that if you’re planning a holiday in Naran, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, you must book way in advance, else you’ll end up spending the night on the street, despite the inordinate and haphazard expansion in the number of hotels.
And, to add to one’s travel travails, Pakistan’s sparse digital presence and dated information on travel websites like Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet, makes access to authentic information hard to get.
In an email exchange after Trinity left Pakistan, she is candid -- "The worst is the road conditions, especially from Skardu to Gilgit; the electricity shortage which happens in the whole country, including luxury hotels; the lack of reliable internet connections, especially in Gilgit Baltistan." She brings up the slow service at restaurants, and suggests "restaurants in touristy area should have a menu in English". She also encountered language problems, and, "Oh, I think the checkpoints are too much (in district borders). Apart from wasting time, they can be frightening to some. Too many police/military checkpoints may be perceived as not safe."
None of the 100K followers of Trinity while browsing through her Instagram posts will get a glimpse of such inconvenient truths - or hear about the fact that her car broke down twice during the journey across the country.
When Alex, an American traveller behind the travel blog Lost With Purpose, tried to use a big lens to look deep into Pakistan and declare that "Pakistan is not an easy country to travel in and the current social media coverage of it is misleading", she was silenced for being too critical by the powers that be in the industry and uninvited to speak at the Pakistan Tourism Summit.
"Social media influencers only show the rosy picture," Aneeqa Ali adds. "These sponsored travellers get access to places where most locals can’t go. They operate using a strict scheme which doesn’t always present the true picture of the country."
Yet, the government is determined to focus on a little too much gloss, not authenticity.
The 2018 election manifesto of the PTI acknowledged tourism as a missed opportunity owing to multiple reasons including terrorism. It pledged to "promote and position Pakistan as Asia’s best kept secret". Titled ‘Inclusive Economic Growth’, this section of the manifesto is surprisingly not a clutter of clichés but means business. It delves into the specifics, 20 new tourist destinations in 5 years, incentivise private sector investment, themed tourism, open all government guesthouses to public, easy visa for foreigners, upgrade human capital in the hospitality business. The party was lucky to win the elections in July 2018. And, since the win eleven months ago, Imran Khan, an avid adventure traveller himself, has pledged to explore the full potential of tourism time and again.
At a tourism summit in Islamabad in April, he said, "Pakistan’s untouched scenic sites will be ruined if tourism in the country is not regulated and appropriate laws are not implemented."
To the government’s credit, some effort has been made to build the sector. The government has set up the National Tourism Coordination Board (NTCB), headed by PM Khan’s friend Zulfikar Bukhari -- to bridge the gap created between the federal and the provincial government after the passage of the 18th Amendment. Another well considered move has been to ease the visa process (see box).
The policy decisions, no matter desirable, will become meaningless if taken in isolation. The change has to occur at the grassroots level. "We have to educate the locals in responsible and sustainable tourism," says Aneeqa Ali. In the absence of recycling plants, waste disposal is a dire issue. "While travelling I often keep the chocolate wrapper in my pocket to throw it in the hotel’s dustbin. But I feel defeated when I see the hotel trash disposed of directly in the river."
The task before the government is mammoth, and it seems ready to take it on, but no real team is in place to carry this vision forward. The Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation is suffering monetary losses and is mired in controversies. Recently 706 PTDC employees were laid off for being illegally recruited by the PPP. The corporation’s last managing director was accused of illegal appointments in PTDC motels and directives were issued to terminate his service in 2013. Since then, the PTDC has been without a managing director.
There is no silver bullet; change will come, one location at a time, one milestone after another. But certainly at this point Pakistan must work diligently on the idea of conscious travel and strengthening the grassroots - and not stage fake authenticity by focusing on the international image making that glosses over the reality.
Last month alone Pakistan was shaken by three bomb blasts, in Lahore, Gwadar and Quetta. Tourists look for life as it is lived by the locals, fear among the people - and the shoddy infrastructure -- will scare off the tourists, no matter how much we invest in the social media influencers using modern communication tools.
The world is increasingly relying on algorithms to market tourism but in Pakistan compiling data-driven estimations of the scale and worth of the tourism industry is wishful thinking.
The tourism industry works on general estimates -- "According to information collected from the Federal Investigation Agency, about 8,223 foreigners visited Pakistan in 2018," says Rana. Of which, 60 percent came to visit family, 25 percent for business, sports and religious tourism and a mere 15 percent to actually travel across the country. "All together they contributed about USD700 million to the national economy. If the potential is fully explored, I think, we can easily generate USD2 billion a year from tourism."
Perhaps, the Travel and Tourism Competitive Index (TTCI) collects the most detailed figures on tourism in Pakistan, using up to 90 factors to develop the Index. A report compiled in 2017, TTCI ranked Pakistan 124th of 136 countries, with India 40, Bhutan 78, Nepal 103 and Bangladesh 125 in South Asia.
Pakistan lacks in all indicative factors: Out of 136, in business environment Pakistan ranks 119, safety and security 133, health and hygiene 101, prioritisation of travel and tourism 122, tourist service infrastructure 125.
The country lags in all other factors, except perhaps price competitiveness, which stands at 29. Drew Binsky‘s vlog testifies to how cheap it is. "…it’ll never break your bank account to travel around Pakistan" and the best part is that "if you have 10 dollars you can cover all your meals for a week".
-- A.T. Hussain
Keeping its promise to promote tourism by opening the borders to the world, the PTI government announced a "revolutionary visa regime" to issue visa-on-arrival to citizens of 50 countries and e-visa to citizens of 175 countries.
National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra), which developed the online system of issuing visas to potential travellers to Pakistan, claimed last month that around 2,250 individuals from across the globe have so far applied online to obtain Pakistan’s visa.
Before this, the visa on arrival privilege was granted to only 24 countries.
The government also decided to lift the condition of a no-objection certificate (NOC) for foreigners wanting to travel to places such as Gilgit Baltistan -- and even the cantonment areas.
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But, Aneeqa Ali, who interacts with foreign travellers regularly and is on the advisory board of Tourism Corporation of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, says the revised visa policy for foreign travellers has not been implemented properly ever since it was announced four months back in January this year. "So often the visa applicants are unable to access the website due to errors. Sometimes the visa apps do not work. They haven’t made the process as smooth as it should be."
Further, the decision to lift the NOC requirement for foreign travellers is already creating problems for the local security administration. "We hear this policy might be reversed. In Azad Kashmir, travellers are not allowed within 10 mile radius of the highly-militarised India-Pakistan border. With border running close to the places-to-see in Kashmir, it’s impossible for them to travel to this part of the country."