Since coming into power, Prime Minister Imran Khan has been talking a lot about the tourism as one of the sources for generating badly needed foreign exchange for the country. This initiative may look very attractive, but he forgets, or he does not realize that in order to develop the tourism, particularly for attracting the foreign tourists for their greenbacks, it requires tobuilding its infrastructure, conducivefor thriving Pakistan’stourism industry.
There cannot be any better time than this to push in pursuing the tourism not only just for making it another and permanent source for the foreign exchange but to participate and experience the global community that teaches tolerance, inclusivity, open mindedness, knowledgebroadening, learning new cultures and experiencing new natural wonders located beyond once own country and region. It was just past Monday (September 27) when the World Tourism was celebrated all over the world as a sign for promoting tourism and global citizenship spirit for embracing the diversity and appreciating, enjoying, and learning from the uniqueness of individual nations and their lands. As a matter of fact,in addition to the trading, it was the tourism that was behind the spirit of the ancient Silk Roadthat laid the foundation of the global trade through the creation of the ‘T-shirt’!
Tourism not only generates foreign exchange, but it also creates employment for the citizens, from well-educated to factory workers, shopkeepers, hotels, restaurants, guides, handicraft makers, including the indigenous citizens of the society. To some estimates, for every direct job creation by the tourism, up to two additional jobs are indirectly created. In other words, unlike the other industries, in tourism job creation happens like a dynamo effect!
There is no doubt that Pakistan is blessed with many touristic attractions that are under exploited. These attractions are mostly cultural and religious in nature thus are more interesting for the tourists from the Islamic block and some minorities, like the Buddhists and Sikhs. Nevertheless, there is no information available from any sources, including the foreign outposts and the diplomats. The PM needs to direct its concerned SAPM and the policy maker for creating detailed information, colorful literature, and promotional items of the sites for attracting the tourists from these groups.
Frequently, Pakistan is in the news about the terrorist activities involving killing of the local as well as foreign visitors. As a matter of fact, during the last couple of months, there have been back-to-back incidents where Chinese nationals who were working on the CPEC projects were attacked. These kinds of incidents are not going to help to develop and to attract foreign tourists. As a matter of fact, these kind of incidents highlights that Pakistan is not a safe country to travel by the foreigners/tourists. Thus, if the Prime Minister is really sincere in his efforts to develop Pakistan as an attractive destination for the tourists, he has to create, and to assure that Pakistan can meet all the basic requirements which are the foundations for any touristic place in the world. Following are the highlights of the tourism echo system that is critical for the success of the tourism in any country:
. Reliable 24/7 power supply without any disruption.
. High speed Internet.
. Public transportation.
. Reliable telecommunication.
. Safe drinking water.
. Running hot and cold water.
. Clean rest areas with western style amenities (toilets, washing, drying & playing areas).
. Hotels& rest houses meeting WHO hygiene standards.
. Restaurants with local & western cuisines.
. Regulated hospitality industry, meeting international safety & security protocols.
By reflecting back, one can easily identify that besides the paramount safety security concerns, the telecommunication, like the high-speed Internet, telecom services, public transportation, roads, health services, and alike other basic touristic needs are not non-existence in Pakistan, at least on a consistent and reliable basis. Power outages, internet interruptions, lack of touristic supplies are prevalent throughout the country. Under these circumstances, one can easily see, that the PM talks about the things which are theoretically good options for earning the foreign exchange to reduce the trade deficit and ever ballooning external debt. As a matter of fact,according to the preliminary data released just last month for the second month of the FY22, the trade deficit reached to all time high of $4.05 billion that relates 133% increase against the same period of the last fiscal year! For the entire FY21, the total trade deficit was of $56.09 billion, about 26% increase versus the previous fiscal year. This is a clear indication that the exports are not making any dent against the imports that are constantly increasing. Remittances, along with the other programs put in place by the government were helping initially, but after a strong start during the last fiscal year are drying up! According to the latest information from the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), during the second quarter of 2021, the external debt reached to $122,199 billion while during the first quarter of the year, it was $116,309 billion. Additionally, under the current economic conditions the upcoming negotiations with the IMF seem to be very challenging for the government.
With this macroeconomic and financial backdrop, Pakistan really needs to think out of the box approach to shore up programs that will really help to earn the desperately needed foreign exchange by bringing back the runaway FDI, and the investors with deep pockets. Tourism is not a magic wand to help solve the perennial deficit problem overnight, but currently it sounds as one of the good options. With all the goodwill from the PM and concerted efforts by the government and the policy makes, its contribution to the foreign exchange will be limited as it will not attract the mainstream tourists from the western countries who carry deep pockets and spend generously by going to the nightclubs, bars, casinos, and other entertainment venues. Under these circumstances, the PM needs to think through the realities on the ground and viabilities of his goodwill thinking.
Often the PM talks about European and other touristic destinations like the Scandinavian countries, Turkey, UAE, China, and alike others without looking deeply into the infrastructure that is the backbone for the tourism success in those countries. No doubt, Pakistan has been blessed with many attractions that are not only equal but in many cases unique and better than the other touristic destinations. From historical monuments, remnants of ancient civilizations, religious shrines, natural valleys, mountain peaks, cultural heritages, colonial landmarks, but above all friendly and vibrant society with diverse backgrounds and traditions. However, to use these resources for promoting the tourism, the PM and the policy makers need to first double down in providing the basic necessities of everyday modern life; like the uninterrupted power supply, reliable highspeed internet and safe drinking water, in addition and foremost to safety and security of the tourists. Just buildingfour- and five-star hotels in the country to attract the foreign tourists without the paramount safety and security is not going to work. Without addressing the fundamental needs, all the other efforts will be waste of time and resources!
In the absence of an uninterrupted Internet service, tourists cannot communicate with their loved ones back home and share their live experiences with their friends and family members. Most importantly, in case of any emergency, they cannot communicate to get any assistance in a timely manner, particularly in the life-threatening situations. Due to the unsafe drinking water, the foreigners/tourists get gastrointestinal problems (stomach related ailments) that create health and wellbeing issues.
If the Prime Minister is really serious about his vision for developing the tourism, he should use the playbooks from his favorite countries like China, Turkey, UAE, Qatar, etc. China developed its tourism industry with a concerted effort by the government at all levels, starting with local, provincial as well national levels. The government heavily promoted the tourism through its international & social media channels and just during the last decade attracted millions of tourists every year from the USA, EU, and other counties. This was achieved by aggressively promoting and heavily subsidizing the costs by offering the packages through the tour operators all throughout the year. The airline tickets for the international as well as the domestic travels on Chinese carriers were drastically subsidized and in many cases it was costing 25-30% of the actual cost. Additionally, four- and five-star hotels for the stay, including the authentic local Chinese cuisines and cultural shows along with the visits to the historical sites, museums, opera houses, traditional villages, and handicraft markets; all were offered as part of the tour package, collectively at just 30-40% of the total costs if arranged separately. This strategy created influx of the tourists to China and by maintaining the quality of the tours from start to finish, in a very short period of time, it transformed into a sustainable tourism industry. Prior to the Pandemic, China was earning billions ofUS dollars per year through the tourism.Just a couple of years before the pandemic, China started offering free stopovers in its major cities for the transit passengers. Similar programs are offered by Turkey, Dubai, and Qatar for their transit passengers, but at heavily subsidized hotel rates. Turkey, Dubai, and Qatar, they all also offer guided free tours to the passengers who enroll them for the tours at the time of their bookings.
Many Asian and South & Central America countries outsource their tourism activities to the international tour operators, like the National Geographic, Affordable Tours, Trafalgar Tours, etc. These operators offer many touristic activities, like hiking, trekking, climbing, biking, diving, sightseeing, nature, wildlife, birds watching, fishing, culinary, shopping, and local sports.They all offer the tour guides with multilingual speakers who are very knowledgeable about the visiting sites. As described earlier about China, the total cost for the entire tour including the room and board along with few authentic local meals and visits to the cultural & historic sites cost no more than 25 to 30% of the actual costs. This created inflow of the foreign tourists initially on seasonal basis but theword-of-mouthof their experiences to the family members and friends created an ongoing and repetitive-permanent source of the foreign exchange. Thus, by using the blueprints of the described and proven successful playbooks, the PM can jump start the tourism industry, as long as it meets it’s prerequisites that have been highlighted earlier.