Pakistan is being reimagined as a tourist destination; international influencers, v-loggers and mainstream global media are being invited to visit the country. Visa regime has also been relaxed, at least on paper, whereas security concerns have been substantially reduced. These are indeed some promising developments at a time when domestic tourism has also picked up over the last five to seven years. No surprises that PM Khan recently touted the country’s tourism as a potential sector to invest in. But beyond the hype, little work is being done to develop this industry.
The state of tourism labour market, both managerial and support staff at large, is poor. For a service-oriented sector, this is one of the major weaknesses flagged by industry experts.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that café owners cannot even find trained baristas, servers, or reception staff; it is no surprise that any café or hotel worth its while is increasingly hiring its staff from Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) region (or select districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa such as Chitral). Hospitality-related workers from GB are relatively better-educated, or at least have pleasant mannerism, perhaps due to the fact that those regions are more accustomed to international tourists. No offense to the people from other regions, but having a natural smile seems to be an arduous task for Pakistanis in general, compared to say many East Asians in general or even Sri Lankan or Nepalese tourism industry staff.
Or consider the fact that there is no coordination policy framework that guides the multiple agencies responsible for tourism and ancillary affairs across federal and provincial jurisdictions. Industry sources say that those agencies are also not fond of stakeholder engagement. And regardless of the hype of tourism in the country, one cannot optimistically expect that this coordination mechanism will be fixed any time soon unless serious efforts are made. After all, this is a country that has not even fixed its coordination for taxes, which is surely a more important subject than tourism.
Similarly, efforts are not being made towards environmental sustainability and conservation. Of the various sorts of tourism – which include business, religious, medical, culture, education, etc – the most promising sort of tourism in Pakistan so far is natural or landscape-oriented tourism. And that too is currently limited to mountain areas of Pakistan that are increasingly burdened by the ecological footprint of tourists; as if great places to sightsee don’t exist in other regions in the country.
The problem is that regulatory and institutional regimes in these mountain areas in particular and elsewhere in the country in general are weak insofar as environment and sustainability are concerned. For example, milk cartons have replaced livestock that previously provided milk in these regions. Other than area households, the packaged milk producers and bottled water companies too are somewhat guilty. They do all kinds of CSR activities elsewhere, but their CSR managers don’t bother with the problem of heaps of empty milk cartons and plastic water bottles in the mountains, knowing fully well that the state doesn’t have the capacity to pick up the garbage.
But even if problems like these are resolved, huge amounts of FDI should not be expected in Pakistan’s tourism sector in the foreseeable period. Globally, the top sub-sectors within tourism that attract FDI flows are accommodation, travel arrangement and reservation services, and software publishers.
Aside from accommodation, other tourism-related FDI inflows do not have huge ticket size. As for accommodation, there are two points worth considering: at the one end, whatever little market exists for major hotel properties, the local players are already tapping that, whereas the market so far is not big enough to attract big hotel chain in, say, Chitral. At the other end, the sharing-economy model is growing in Pakistan, where the recent launch of Roomph, a booking platform for hotels/guest houses, and other Airbnb-styled GB-based businesses are noteworthy additions.
There is no doubt that after fuels and chemicals, tourism is one of the leading export categories in the world. Tourism, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation’s calculations, is, in fact, ahead of automobiles and food, and represents 30 percent of global exports in services. Pakistan hasn’t reaped this sector’s benefits as yet, as these graphs show. But if efforts are made towards governance, policymaking and regulation, the private sector can do the rest on its own. There is enough money to be made in this sector, albeit at the risk of repetition, sustainability must be mainstreamed into tourism policy and development agenda. Failing to do so is akin to killing the very hen that lays golden eggs.