Pakistan has emerged as one of the most sought after tourist destinations over the past few years. The South Asian country has topped several international travel lists such as Forbes’ “10 coolest places to visit in 2019” and “Best vacation destinations of 2020” from Conde Nast.
The Pakistani government and citizens hope the development will attract more investment in tourism-related businesses and help create better paying jobs.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government announced plans to develop and promote tourism and relax visa restrictions for foreign travelers.
But the onset of a global health emergency and the limitations it causes trips around the world have thwarted government plans.
“Due to COVID, we were unable to implement the government’s tourism strategy over the past year,” Babar Javaid, communications manager at the Pakistan Tourism Development Company (PTDC), told DW.
“Tourism is the government’s priority area,” he said, pointing to the sector’s significant contribution to economic activity, direct investment and poverty alleviation.
High global interest in traveling to Pakistan
In recent years, travel bloggers have flocked to Pakistan, attracted by the country’s high peaks, lush valleys and rich heritage.
The content they produce and post on social media is contributing to a surge in global interest.
Their promotion of Pakistan as a travel destination offers entertainment to ever-living residents decades of military crackdown, terrorist violence and political instability.
Eva Zu Beck, a British-Polish traveler and content creator, is arguably the most famous vlogger promoting travel to Pakistan. He even believes that his country can become the world’s top tourist destination.
Zu Beck has more than 551,000 followers on Instagram and more than 905,000 channel subscribers on YouTube. Some of his videos about Pakistan have been viewed millions of times.
Tourism has negative side effects
“With Pakistani tourism, there is this feeling of goldrush, where everyone is excited about the economic possibilities without really thinking about the bigger picture of how sustainable tourism can be supported in the country,” he told DW.
He pointed to the country’s fragile ecosystem, in particular in the Gilgit-Baltistan region, and stressed the need for sustainability.
Zu Beck notes that during his trip to Pakistan, he noticed shifts and the newly constructed gray concrete structures juxtaposed with traditional architecture and the beauty of the valley.
World-renowned travel bloggers believe that COVID provides an opportunity for the Pakistani government to promote sustainable tourism.
“This is actually a very important opportunity for the Pakistani government to take advantage of the ‘gap’ in tourism and develop infrastructure for the benefit of travelers, local communities and the environment,” said Zu Beck. “Then the country will be able to better handle the influx of tourists in the future too.”
The nation’s fragile ecosystem means there must be an increasing emphasis on sustainability, say experts
Climate change and threats to ecosystems
Experts and NGOs are increasingly warning that uncontrolled tourism could exacerbating climate change and threatening fragile ecosystems.
They are calling for promotion of ecotourism. “Ecotourism is about managing the negative impacts of tourism by actively engaging communities and transferring benefits to them,” Ali Nawaz, director of the Snow Leopard Foundation, told DW.
“They are the keepers of these ecosystems and only they can really protect them,” he added, underlining that ecotourism helps ensure economic development while protecting the ecology.
Nawaz also pointed out that during the COVID-19 crisis, there had been an increase in wildlife sightings and activity in their project area. “Wildlife is dynamic and influenced by human activity. We are seeing more brown bear activity on the Deosai Plains due to fewer cars. The pandemic has shown the world how nature can develop if humans have more respect.”
Regarding ecotourism, PTDC Javaid said Prime Minister Imran Khan would launch a plan this year to tackle the problem of negative side effects from increased tourism.
Residents are harmed by tourism
Shamim Bano, 45, a mother of four, has worked at Korgah, a small carpet making company run by women since 1998.
She said she used to earn around € 200 ($ 242) a month, money mostly going towards the education of her children.
But the pandemic has temporarily halted the entry of foreign tourists, stopping Korgah’s business by robbing most of its customers.
“Now slowly, the travelers are coming back and things are improving. But we don’t know when this health crisis will end, so the future still seems uncertain,” Bano told DW.
“For poor people like us, we have come to rely on tourism, so we don’t want to lockdown anymore but we need help,” said Bano.
Mehnaz Parveen, CEO of the Karakoram Area Development Organization, told DW that about 70% of the population in the Hunza valley area of Gilgit-Baltistan directly or indirectly depends on tourism for their livelihoods.
“That’s why we started an online platform to promote e-commerce and the sale of handicrafts online,” said Parveen, adding: “We have to invest in our beautiful places if we want to stay in them.”
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