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EDITORIAL: It must have taken a special kind of effort to keep a country like Pakistan from developing its tourism sector considering that we have the best of everything – mountains, rivers, historical and religious sites, salt ranges, even a sea. And it ought to be an obvious added advantage that the subcontinent has had so many dynasties rule over it during its recorded history, from the Maurya Empire (322-185 BCE) to the British Raj which finally made way for Partition and independence, because of which it is littered with sites that would normally draw archaeologists, historians and especially tourists like moths to a flame. Yet not only did we never really bother to rehabilitate or develop our top historical sites, bar one or two like the Lahore Fort of course, but our tourism sector earning is also among the lowest in the region and indeed the world, standing at a paltry $7-odd-billion per year till just before the pandemic.

That is why it is good to see that Prime Minister Imran Khan is sticking to his word about developing this sector, yet his government will have to do a lot of work before it can justify the kind of optimism about the future of tourism in Pakistan that he expressed while inaugurating the heritage trail at Al Biruni point (Baghan Wala Village) at the Nandana Fort in district Jhelum. That means even before it can get to the laborious, and quite expensive, task of erecting necessary infrastructure practically up and down the country, it must first ensure a conducive environment. That, of course, means overcoming terrorism and terrorists for good and ensuring peace, besides controlling all sorts of political disturbances and civic commotion. We have come a long way in winning our own war against terrorism ever since operations Zarb-e-Azb and Rad-ul-Fasaad put all the bad guys in their place, but politically the country is pretty much a powder keg and civic friction has also risen a notch or two over the last few years; so there’s a lot to be done before anything turns around.

The PM said the government would work on a scheme to provide soft loans to young people, who can then help install some of the necessary infrastructure like hotels, etc., but building roads and laying railway tracks to connect different tourist destinations will still have to be done by the government. This is a tall order no doubt and it will not come to fruition just by issuing directives and getting a bunch of yes men to snap out salutes in front of a camera crew. It will require careful, long-term planning that will involve not just government officials but also experts in history and finance so a plan of action can be identified, budgeted and sanctioned.

Prime Minister Imran Khan is eager to get this show on the road because of its associated effects on the employment rate as well as national reserves. That is precisely why his main focus right now should be on creating the kind of environment that is best suited to stimulate tourism. No such plan has even been considered for quite a while because first there were the endless years of the terror war, which led to a lot of bombs going off inside our borders as well, and then everything got pretty much paralysed because of the pandemic. Yet even as the world waits to get back to travelling and touring like the good old times, Pakistan can use this brief lull in international travel by completing its homework and doing what it can to involve as much of the local community as possible to put the right kind of infrastructure in place.

Technically speaking, tourism should have become one of Pakistan’s prime exports a long time ago simply because of the fact that the country enjoys something of a natural comparative advantage in it. All that was needed was for its many natural and historical sites to be properly developed and we would have earned a steady stream of foreign exchange from it over the years, in addition to generating employment for millions of local workers. This vision can still be salvaged and both additional employment and income can be extracted from tourism, provided the government can spare the money and, perhaps even more importantly, the political will needed for it.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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