Surprising in some ways, but then again, not really: Pakistan remains the least competitive country in South Asia when it comes to travel and tourism, according to the The Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2019 published by the World Economic Forum last week.
The report placed Pakistan at the bottom of the Asia-Pacific Travel and Tourism Competitive Index 2019 rankings. Pakistan ranked 121 this year out of 140 countries, up from 124 in 2017.
The report emphasised that Pakistan still requires substantial improvement in tourism infrastructure and policy, and needs to work on creating an enabling environment and conditions for tourism to move up in rank and out of the bottom quartile.
So why did Pakistan end up at the bottom of the list? We got some of our favourite travel bloggers to give us their insights — and what we can do to get better.
Hassan thinks there's many areas that we can improve on in order to boost our ranking.
"Interconnectivity isn't great. Budget airlines are practically nonexistent and booking train tickets is another hassle. Getting to the mountains, Pakistan’s biggest tourist draw, is an entire ordeal in itself. Adding to this mess, there’s barely any infrastructure available to shuttle tourists to the many heritage sites outside the cities, like Makli, Thatta, Chaukandi, Rohtas and Katas Raj to [name] a few."
"There's also a lack of budget accommodation. Most travellers either resort to couchsurfing or, the ones who can afford it, opt for the limited pricey big brand hotel options. We need to invest in low-cost budget hotels, hostels and bed & breakfasts if we want to bring in more travellers to Pakistan."
He also added that Pakistan is a "great product with horrible marketing".
"The government doesn’t really promote the country’s tourism abroad. I’ve never seen a Pakistan tourism advertisement on TV or on any billboard around the world. Tweeting and retweeting one advertisement on one London bus isn’t going to get people to visit here.”
“The Maldives, Sri Lanka, India and Nepal all place commercials on international news channels like BBC and CNN, I’ve seen billboards for all of them at international airports. We need to work on our advertising a lot."
Expanding on that, Hassan also pointed out how we don't have a tourism minister at the federal level.
"In order to attract more tourists, we need to reach out more to folks closer to home rather than look towards the European and Western travellers. [For example,] the bulk of tourists coming to the UAE are from within the region."
"Market the product in places like Bangladesh, Iran, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Malaysia; all of them have big middle class populations looking to travel. Make visas easy for each of their populations. Look towards signing reciprocal visa agreements with them, hence also enhancing cross-cultural relationships."
“Also, Pakistan doesn’t have a tourism minister, let alone a tourism ministry that’s supposed to oversee all these things.”
“There used to be a tourism ministry a while back, but it was abolished [after the 18th Amendment was passed] and most of its powers were transferred to the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation. How can you expect to compete on the global level when you don’t even have a ministry, let alone a minister that’s supposed to oversee all these issues?”
“In Pakistan, there are provincial level tourism departments in some places. However, all of them work independently from one another since there’s no bigger organisation overseeing them. There’s no cohesion, no synergy.”
"After reading the tourism report, I am despondent to find out that Pakistan is the least competitive state in terms of travel and tourism. As a Pakistani who has often travelled to the northern areas of Pakistan, I have witnessed the heavenly beauty my land possesses.”
"But sadly, the world is not aware of these features, as their know-how is more inclined towards terrorism and negativity prevailing in Pakistan.”
"I've been living in Germany for almost three years and I have seen people holding similar negative views, and they often come up to ask about the safety of tourism in Pakistan. I believe the tainted perception and ranking of Pakistan’s tourism can be improved by inviting more international travel bloggers to Pakistan. Such personalities play a significant role in changing viewpoints regarding places waiting to be explored.”
"Moreover, Pakistani travel bloggers who portray the various natural landscapes of Pakistan should be highlighted more in the international media.”
"The more exposure we give to these bloggers, the better image would reach out to the world. When they would be able to see the on-ground reality through the lenses, they would be assured that not only is Pakistan safe to travel, but an amazing spot to invest time and money in.”
Anam echoes many of Bilal’s concerns, and according to her, there are three things that need to happen.
“First, we need ONE unanimous tourism board. The current approach will not work, where every province has its own board. Most other countries have a single tourism board that works in the interest of increasing tourism.”
“Marketing and PR come second. Pakistan has suffered from a PR crisis in the past decades. It needs a campaign developed by marketing experts to position it internationally as a competitive tourist destination.”
“Along with those steps, we need infrastructure development. You can't just work on marketing without the tourism infrastructure.”
The key, Anam says, is to diversify the kind of traveller to make Pakistan a viable destination for and represents the toughest challenge.
“So far, the government has attracted hardcore travellers/influencers, often on paid trips. If you want an average person from anywhere in the world to consider you as a destination that they’ll pay a visit to, you must give them international standard facilities. Tourism centres, hostels and hotels, public transport options, restaurants/eateries, cleanliness and information online about it all.”
“We just landed home from Nepal and saw firsthand how a third world Asian country is doing a wonderful job to facilitate its booming tourism industry. Let’s talk about why Pakistan isn’t able to do the same just yet.”
“First, there’s a huge gap of information for someone trying to explore Pakistan. They have to be dependent on a tour group or a contact in Pakistan to organise any kind of exploration.”
The pair notes that there are not many tourist information centres and no readily available maps, tour guides or easily accessible transport to help one get around the country.
“One really has to hunt for them. Right there, you have reduced mobility within the country and, to make matters worse, the tourist information centres are not equipped to handle foreign tourists ⸺ especially in Sindh.”
“Even the Internet doesn’t have information readily available about Pakistan. There are no routes available either for motorways and highways. You get to know through word of mouth or from people who have travelled within Pakistan before.”
“Second, transport is a big problem. We do not have much public transport available, thus making it tough for tourists to get around. Plus, the infrastructure isn’t available either. The provinces generally have no proper roads, highways or even guest houses or accommodations for people to stay.”
Amtul and Fahad also point out a vital tourist demographic that Pakistan is missing out on: backpackers.
“We are not backpacker-friendly at all. Asian countries, for the most part, have become backpacker havens. Because of the nature of the landscape and terrain, countries like Nepal, northern India, Pakistan and China attract tourists who are more like hikers, backpackers and campers. Therefore, they need an environment that can accommodate all of that.”
“What we really need are good, hygienic hostels which offer competitive prices, yet Pakistan is still stuck in trying to make poorly-equipped hotels at a far higher price compared to other countries.”
“We also do not provide avenues that can develop a good traveller community. Apart from a couple of Facebook pages, we don’t have that, especially not for foreign tourists coming in. We have no place, organisation or group bringing all foreign tourists together. Everyone travels and experiences things remotely and individually, unless they travel with a tour company. In other countries, hostels bring people together.”
Conversely, commercialised tourism has also hurt Pakistani tourism, according to Amtul and Fahad. What does this mean?
“[Poor commercialisation] means that people have identified that tourism is picking up locally and they are scrambling to quickly develop those areas, but in turn, due to lack of oversight, some locations are quickly becoming a mess.”
“For example, the Babusar Top ⸺ magnificent views but with zero organisation. Stalls upon stalls with no supervision have been set up over there with zero waste management. Waste and rubbish is just collecting there and no one does anything about it, ruining a beautiful place.”
“Naran-Khagan are facing the same problem, with increasing amounts of pollution and too much commercialisation without any aesthetic sense and waste management.”
However, the biggest problem is actually the lack of empowerment for locals living in and around popular destinations, adds the couple. “They now see tourism as a threat. Why? Because other people are profiting off the tourists and the tourists are littering and polluting their lands.”
“Big companies like Serena and other tycoons are taking the opportunity and making more money without trying to give any benefits to the locals. They bring their own resources and staff and alienate the local population.”
“The locals need to be made part of a system that will give them more benefit by involving them in more than just manual labour. They need to be given ownership so they can benefit from tourism too and take care of the place.”
Amtul and Fahad also point out that increasing pollution and littering are a big reason why some local tourism is degrading. “Our local tourists are given no education and awareness on how to travel with responsibility and what ecotourism is: travel with minimum plastic and reuse and recycle. No one follows this.”
“Some locals even litter a lot and dispose their waste out in the open. No dustbins are installed and no waste management systems are put in these areas by the government.”
But it’s not all bad ⸺ things are changing and we can all do our part.
“There are still a lot of positives we have seen this year in the tourism industry, mostly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and probably the most tourist friendly place: Hunza,” say Amtul and Fahad.
“The KPK government has taken a few initiatives and developed camping sites in multiple places and has installed dustbins in a lot of areas. It’s trying to educate people as well how to travel responsibly. Hunza is one place in Pakistan that is very well-equipped to handle tourists.”
“We know it's easy to point at problems and with time we hope we can learn from our neighbouring countries to take a more eco-friendly approach to tourism.”
“We travel often to think of solutions that could solve all of this, but with time, we’ve realised that it will be a slow process and as Pakistanis, the first step we need to take is to have more national pride, stop littering and educate people around us to do the same.”
“The worst thing that can happen is losing Pakistan's unbelievable natural assets to pollution.”