"We want to develop responsible tourism programmes"

Interview of Minister for Tourism Atif Khan

Spurred by the popularity of travel vlogging and destination vacations, local tourism in Pakistan has experienced a boom in recent years. An estimated 75 percent of tourism in Pakistan is Khyber Pakhtunkhwa-centric. TNS sat with Atif Khan, the minister for tourism, culture and archaeology, to discuss the KP Tourism Act 2019 and the potential for tourism.

The News on Sunday: Over the past couple of years Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) has gained the attention of local tourists, leading to some unplanned development. How will the KP Tourism Act 2019 (KPTA 19) address this issue?

Atif Khan: The tourist attention is a welcome sign. It indicates that efforts of the provincial government to promot the region as a tourist destination have started to pay off. The flip side of this increased influx of tourists is the unplanned and haphazard construction of hotels, restaurants and other tourist-related facilities. The KPTA 19, a regulatory and legal framework, will plug the loopholes which were previously exploited by tour operators and people related to the hospitality industry. The Act not only provides an umbrella for development, promotion and marketing of tourism and cultural sites but also lays emphasis on how to sustainably manage these sites. The Act also addresses lack of coordination among various provincial departments through representation in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Tourism Authority Board (KPTAB).

TNS: Together with the World Bank you are currently setting up integrated tourism zones (ITZ). Can you tell us more about this work, especially how you integrate eco-tourism with management?

AK: The concept of ITZ is a profound one. It hinges mainly on the premise of opening up new tourist destinations to manage the tourist’s footfall in existing tourist spots. Our studies show that almost all existing tourist destinations in KP have exhausted their potential on account of unplanned development. ITZ will be designed to specifically address this problem. Every step will be carried out methodically from the start of selecting an area as a future ITZ, the preparation of land use plan, municipal plans, building regulations, geo-tagging, seismic surveys, public-private investment plans till the end when the ITZ is opened for tourists.

We see tourism as the main driver for economic development, particularly in the remote mountainous areas where tourism can become a key source of income. However, way too often local communities have no strategy on how to "utilise" that growth in tourism for poverty reduction and how to ensure that it supports the local population by creating fair job opportunities in years to come. We and our partners are working on a long-term tourism strategy, particularly for sustainable tourism where environmental, social and cultural impacts will be taken into consideration.

We see tourism as the main driver for economic development, particularly in the remote mountainous areas where it can become a key source of regular incomes.

TNS: Some environmentalists believe that the Tourism Act 2019 is not a good deal for the environment. What mechanism is in place to preserve these sites as the volume of tourists increases in the absence of the KP River Protection Ordinance 2002, KP Forest Ordinance 2002, KP Environmental Protection Act 2014, and KP Biodiversity and Wildlife Act 2015?

AK: Let me first address two msjor misconceptions that environmentalists have regarding this act: the first that tourism will lead to deforestation as land will be cleared for infrastructure development and tourism activities, and second that the Act gives powers to the government to declare any area in the province an ITZ, including wildlife parks, game reserves, national parks, and protected and reserved forests.

The need for the KPTA 19 was felt because of the unplanned development activities which led to improper land use. Secondly, the government cannot and will not declare any area an ITZ without conducting a proper environmental impact survey. Furthermore, we have proposed a system to not only monitor and measure impacts but also preserve the local heritage and biodiversity. In order to address these issues each of the provincial departments concerned has been given representation in the board of the proposed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Tourism Authority to engage all stakeholders at all stages of tourism development, from planning to implementation.

Proposals from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Tourism Authority will be sent to the Chief Minister’s Strategy Board for Tourism, headed by the chief minister, for discussion. The  strategy board will further whet the proposal before sending it to the provincial cabinet for approval. I believe there is enough diligence for keeping the environmental aspect in mind. I can confidently say that it is for the first time that more commitment is being shown to the principles of sustainable tourism in regards to social and environmental issues as opposed to the economic angle. This will ultimately transpire into focusing more on the quality of tourists rather than increasing the quantity.

TNS: Tourism is sometimes criticised for being a very fragmented industry, dominated by short-term, silo thinking and lack of collaboration across agencies and institutions. How will the new law address the barriers that prevent tourism organisations from playing an active role in destination management and regional development?

AK: It’s time we understood that tourism cannot be only a revenue-collecting activity; it must also change into a giving-back industry in terms of regional development and environmental sustainability. I believe that the tourism business must be part of sustainable solutions for both nature and heritage preservation. Through the KPTA 19 we want to achieve cohesion between the private and public sectors and let local communities take the lead.

TNS: Several countries that are considered popular ecotourism destinations have instituted national strategies for the development, management, and accreditation of tourism vendors and programmes. Can you talk about certification and standardisation of the tourism industry in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the future of such programmes?

AK: Standardisation and certification is an important aspect for quality service and sustainable development in the tourism industry. Before the promulgation of the KPTA 19, standardisation was not taken into consideration. Last year, with World Bank assistance, a Tourism Factor Analysis was done to identify tourism trends in four tourist destinations in KP. The findings of this report will be helpful in establishing uniform standards the tourism industry of the province. Similarly, in order to streamline the certification process, KPTA 19 has proposed to merge the Directorate of Tourist Services, which is responsible for issuance of licences and registration of various tourism enterprises, into the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Tourism Authority.

TNS: The new law also envisages a special tourism police force to facilitate tourists. What powers will they have and how will they exercise them? Will they also get some sensitivity training to encourage tourism?

AK: The idea is to have a specialised tourist police trained for producing better experiences for tourists. Initially, special police units from the already existing police force will be selected whose sole responsibility will be to protect tourists by having trained personnel to deal specifically with tourist-related matters. The personnel will also be trained to give legal assistance to tourists if they get arrested.

TNS: How have your views on tourism and sustainability changed overtime? Which new insights have you gained through your work as a minister for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa?

AK: It’s been long since I first heard the expression "sustainable tourism". Until very recently the concept was misunderstood. But now, with the environmental problems we are facing worldwide and also with a better understanding of the greater need for sustainable destinations and businesses, there is a deeper understanding. As a minister I want to be proactive in order to develop responsible tourism programmes in the region as a means to create a sustainable economy for those living in the region. We want to nurture and keep alive our nature and culture.

"We want to develop responsible tourism programmes"