Developing adventure tourism can prove beneficial for Pakistan’s economy
As home to five of the world’s fourteen highest mountain peaks, rising above the height of 8,000 metres above sea-level, Pakistan has much to offer to the mountaineering enthusiasts. Every year, mountaineers from across the globe come to the country in hopes of conquering the steep climbs of K2, Nanga Parbat and many more glorious mountains of the Karakoram and Himalayan ranges straddling the northern belt.
Adventure tourism in Pakistan can be divided into three distinct phases. Pre 9/11, post 9/11, and before the Covid-19 pandemic. During the period before the infamous World Trade Center attacks, Pakistan was an explorers’ wonderland. Many international tourists would come to the scenic North to experience the natural beauty of the rugged mountains.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks changed the tourist landscape dramatically. Pakistan now had many challenges to deal with both internally and externally. The security situation became a sore spot for the country’s image, dissuadingmost international tourists from risking a northern escape. “International tourism sharply decreased after 9/11, and hardly anyone wanted to risk a mountaineering expedition as security became a significant concern,” says Naiknam Karim, the managing director of Adventure Tours Pakistan.
In the following decade, businesses like that of Karim’s suffered massive setbacks as international tourism dwindled. Domestic tourism, too, remained restricted due to increasing terrorist attacks in the country. Only a few die-hard adventurists dared to take on the high mountains.
Domestic tourism picked up pace over the years. However, it was not enough to sustain many local businesses affiliated with mountaineering and other adventure sports. “The economic impact of post 9/11 anti-terrorism operations and war on terrorism was substantial.” There is a close correlation between the tourist inflow and international media portrayal of a country. Pakistan, post 9/11, suffered considerable socio-political instability as security situation deteriorated and more militant groups came to the fore. According to Karim, from small-time vendors and tour service providers to major hotel chains and other businesses supported by an influx of tourist activity suffered due to the region’s deteriorating security situation.
The Nanga Parbat Massacre of 2013, when 11 mountaineers including a local one were brutally killed by militants belonging to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, further discouraged the mountaineers planning to visit the country.
“By mid-2010s domestic tourism had peaked again. That brought some relief to the local economy,” says Karim. Domestic visitors to the North do not heavily rely on tertiary service providers, but foreign travellers do. This makes their visits more profitable for the indigenous economies.
In his maiden speech Prime Minister Imran Khan said in 2018 that Pakistan had enormous potential for developing the tourism sector. He said that his government planned to facilitate foreign tourism in the country to promote economic growth. “After the introduction of the new visa policy in 2019, foreign tourism did increased manifold,” Karim recalls.
Easier-to-obtain visas and a visa-on-arrival policy, along with improved security conditions resulting from a crackdown on terrorist factions over the past two decades, meant that foreign tourists could visit the Northern Areas more easily. No one could have predicted what 2020 held in store for tourism worldwide. In the year leading to the pandemic, Pakistan had emerged as a sought-after destination, and prospects looked promising for the industry overall. However, “2020 was a difficult year for tour operators, and others affiliated with the industry,” says Karim.
The economic effect of tourism is quite substantial, and anytime there is a lack of activity in the sector, it can have far-reaching implications. A single mountaineering expedition has the potential to generate income for several businesses. From gear sellers and tour operators to the hospitality sector, there is much to gain for all directly or indirectly involved.
The pandemic-related travel restrictions may have kept some adventure lovers at bay for some time, but many will be visiting the gigantic mountains in 2021. Karim tells TNS, “many countries had imposed strict travel restrictions due to the pandemic, but as conditions improve foreign tourist will hopefully, come to the country in the latter half of this year.”
Pakistan’s economy can enormously benefit from the development of adventure tourism in the country. To generate profit, decisive policymaking, installing proper infrastructure, addressing health and security concerns of potential mountaineers, climbers, hikers and tourists should remain a priority concern for the policymakers.
The writer is a staff member