High and dry

Pakistan’s inclusion in the UK’s red list further dampens the already struggling tourism businesses

Survival of businesses in the tourism ecosystem is at risk without continued government support.

Nazar Mohammad scans the Pirwadai bus stop in Rawalpindi for customers. He can hardly see any. A transporter hailing from Bagh in Azad Kashmir, he patiently waits in his driving seat for someone to hire him for a round trip to his native land or to some Northern Areas destination. He knows the region like the back of his hand. His brand-new car parked in front of the long queue, he gets first dibs on any booking that comes from the nearby rent-a-car service, but the bookings are few and far between. The drivers in the queue are not used to this waiting game, at least not at the start of the summer tourist season.

From an average three to four round trips per week prior to the pandemic, Nazar Mohammad and his fellow drivers now down to an average of two trips a month. He is among the countless workers in the informal tourism-related businesses whose jobs have been impacted by the pandemic. Many of his colleagues have either given up on this sector altogether or have taken temporary leave from this line of business. For Nazar this is a luxury he cannot afford. He had leased a new car before the pandemic, when tourism was in full swing, hoping to get more customers which in return would help him pay off the loan. Already short on his installments, his hopes had been pinned on the arrival of customers from the United Kingdom (UK) who frequent Pakistan during the month of Ramazan to celebrate Eid with their relatives.

“I had my clients lined-up till Eid and for the entire summer season,” says Nazar as he searches his mobile phone for the phone numbers of his clients from the UK. “Like all other taxi drivers, I had bookings in advance until the UK government’s decision to impose quarantine restrictions on travellers from Pakistan,” he sighs. Many British Pakistanis originally from Azad Kashmir and various cities of central Punjab visit the country during summers. They usually hire the services of these drivers to take them around Pakistan throughout their stay. Most British Pakistani families have their own trusted drivers, who can be a distant relative or someone who has been recommended to them.

The decision to put Pakistan on UK’s “red list” of countries has not only come as a blow to tourism related businesses, it has also left British Pakistanis confused about whether to stay back in the UK or face considerable inconvenience after they travel between the two countries. Under the new regime, each British Pakistani returning from Pakistan to the UK will have to now quarantine for 10 days at a government-approved hotel costing up to £1,750 per person, which does not include the mandatory £210 each passenger has to pay for testing during this period. A negative PCR test result during this time will not shorten the duration of the quarantine. This sum, plus the exorbitant ticket price, means that for many British Pakistani the usual tour around Eid and Ramazan will have to be postponed.

Pakistan’s inclusion on UK’s “red list” of countries will be a blow to tourism related businesses.

A strategy to cushion the blow to tourism, to minimise job losses and to build recovery in 2021 and beyond, is still missing.

For Ilyas Khan the visiting British Pakistanis had been nothing short of a godsend. In 2018, he had left his corporate job in order to start his own business of developing vacation homes in Nathiagali (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and Murree (the Punjab). These destinations are favoured by many visiting the country. “My partner and I pooled in all our resources to build a couple of cottages near Bhurban (Murree) in order to rent them out to these guests. The initial response encouraged us to extend our business plan to Nathiagali and in 2019 we completed two more cottages. We found ourselves in luck as our previous clients recommended us to others and we were all set for a good summer in 2020, until the pandemic came crashing down on our hopes,” says Khan. This season, too, they had advance bookings only to find out all bookings were cancelled in the wake of this new development. “This has put us behind the eight ball. We cannot rent these places out to local tourists. They only want the cottages for a day or two and they pay rates that do not even cover our running costs. So, we lose money in either case,” he added.

Many related to the tourism industry say that the current situation represents a failure on the part of the government. They say the prime reason behind Pakistan’s inclusion on the UK’s red list for travel is that a significant fraction of British Pakistanis arriving from Pakistan tested positive on day two and day eight of their arrival in the UK. The high transmission rate in Pakistan, which landed the country on the red list, is linked to the spread of the B.1.1.7 variant, or the UK strain that was brought here by the same travellers. The question is why did the government not impose proper quarantine rules of its own in the first place?

The survival of many businesses in the tourism ecosystem is at risk without continued government support. A strategy to cushion the blow to tourism, to minimise job losses and to build recovery in 2021 and beyond, is still missing. For people like Nazar Mohammad, business has been decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic. A recovery without state support will be too slow. The government needs to revisit its strategy. More needs to be done.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Lahore

High and dry