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Tourists have long been drawn to Pakistan to experience a country that boasts rugged natural beauty, cultural richness, and unparalleled hospitality. But Pakistan’s massive tourism potential — touting everything from the world’s second-highest mountain to impressive archeological ruins dating back to the 10th century — has been overshadowed by safety concerns and regional instability.

Yet in recent years the country has been heavily invested in growing its tourism industry. And it’s working; Pakistan has been lauded by publications like Forbes and Condé Nast Traveler as a top destination for 2020, and even received a highly publicized visit from Prince William and Kate Middleton last October.

This past week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan talked about the rise of tourism, calling it “the great potential of Pakistan.”

Pakistan is eager to tap into that potential. The country is in the process of developing a marketing campaign, “Brand Pakistan” to promote its image abroad and will be hosting the World Tourism Forum Leaders Meeting later this year. Western corporations are paying attention. Radisson Hotel Group last year announced a deal for its first-ever hotel in Pakistan.

Still, tourism officials must deal with some of the nagging realities in Pakistan. The country struggles with a lack of infrastructure and numerous environmental concerns.

Hippie Trail to the Return of British airways

Tourism in Pakistan has fluctuated since the country gained independence from British rule in 1947. Official interest began in the 1960s when Pakistan was part of the legendary “Hippie Trail” from Europe to Asia.

After the Soviet invasion of neighboring Afghanistan and an increase in domestic security issues, tourism experienced a lull throughout the 1980s, only to rise again in the 1990s as Pakistan emerged as a destination for adventure seekers and mountain-climbing aficionados.

However, the tourism industry was virtually decimated following the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. as many Western governments issued severe travel advisories against the country, and it was widely viewed as one of the most dangerous in the world. After Pakistan joined the U.S. in its war on terror, the security situation further deteriorated as the government battled terrorist groups like the Taliban.

After a massive bomb exploded outside of a Marriott Hotel in the country’s capital, Islamabad, in 2008, British Airways ceased flying to the country.

But tourism has bounced back, and in 2019 — more than a decade since its departure — British Airways returned as well.

According to widely circulated data attributed to the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation, the number of foreigners who visited Pakistan on a tourist visa in 2017 was 10,476. That number jumped 70 percent to 17,823 in 2018. During his talk at the World Economic Forum, Khan said that tourism doubled between 2018 and 2019. Attempts to reach the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation were unsuccessful.

This rapid growth can be attributed to the Khan government, said Karim Uddin, owner of Active Tours Pakistan.

“Pakistan’s tourism future is very bright and progressive under this leadership,” he added.

Khan has made increasing tourism a cornerstone of his agenda. He’s prioritized improving security and relaxed Pakistan’s infamously arduous visa policy; citizens of 175 countries can now apply for a visa online.

A social media sensation

Social media has also played an outsize role in facilitating tourism in Pakistan. Many well-known travel bloggers have visited, helping challenge long-held assumptions about the country.

“Traditional marketing is well and good, but there’s power to actually seeing other travelers like you visiting a country and showing something positive,” said travel blogger Alex Reynolds. ‘Social media legitimizes ideas over time; the more ‘normal’ tourists who visited Pakistan, enjoyed themselves, and shared about it on social media, the more the idea of Pakistan as a destination formed in people’s minds.’

Reynolds, who runs the site Lost With Purpose and first visited the country in 2016, has witnessed the rapid changes firsthand.

“When I first traveled to Pakistan, there was virtually no practical travel information available online,” she said. “Even adventurous travelers questioned my decision to go. I saw a grand total of two foreign tourists in six weeks. These days, foreign tourists are a common sight in popular spots, and I field questions about traveling Pakistan daily.”

more than just adventure tourism

While “the world is obsessed with traveling in the north,” the country is much more than just a destination for adventure tourism, said Muhammad Waleed, co-founder of Destination Pakistan, a platform dedicated to promoting tourism. The country is geographically diverse; in addition to its famous peaks, Pakistan has desert, lakes, forests, and more than 700 miles of coastline, from which the Khan-led government plans to develop beaches of international standards.

“Pakistan has historical tourism, it has the 5,000 year old Indus Valley Civilization, Mohenjo-Daro, which is one of the oldest. Then it has religious tourism; it has some of the most sacred sites for Hinduism, Sikhism, Sufiism and then Buddhism. And then the mountain tourism in Pakistan — almost half the peaks are over 24,000 feet,” Khan said at Davos. “So it is untouched as a concentration for providing jobs to people and improving the growth rate.”

Pakistan has six UNESCO World Heritage sites and 26 more on a tentative list. The total number of foreign visitors to cultural sites more than doubled from 7,028 in 2017 to 18,041 in 2018, according to a report conducted by Gallup Pakistan.

The country is also legendary among travelers for its hospitality.

“There’s two simple reasons I keep coming back to Pakistan: people and places. In Pakistan it’s immensely easy to meet and interact with locals,” Reynolds said. “Pakistanis aren’t afraid to strike up a conversation, and English is widespread. A few seconds of conversation can turn into an invitation for chai or a stay at someone’s home more often than I ever could have imagined before.”

The 700-year-old Batit Fort in northern Pakistan has been on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative list since 2004. Photo: Active Tours Pakistan

driving Economic growth

The total contribution of travel and tourism to gross domestic product is set to climb from $22 billion in 2017 to nearly $40 billion by 2028, according to a report released by the World Travel and Tourism Council,

The travel industry is taking note. Radisson Hotel Group plans to have 10 hotels and 2,000 rooms in operation and under development across the country by 2025.

“Pakistan is seeing a surge in its economy as the security situation in the country continues to improve,” said Elie Milky, vice president of development for Radisson. “The current tourism infrastructure is still relatively under-developed, which presents itself with massive opportunities to build on.

The country is also experiencing increased economic development thanks to China’s massive —albeit controversial — Belt and Road Initiative, which is creating the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The project — which is valued at $62 billion — aims to improve infrastructure and promote tourism and trade between the two countries.

the importance of sustainable tourism

A rapid increase in tourism does not come without complications. Infrastructure is still lacking, and the country needs more hotels and trained hospitality workers, Active Tours’ Uddin stressed.

Also of worry is the environmental impact of tourism. A surge in both foreign and domestic tourists has led to litter accumulating at tourist sites, and single-use plastic is rampant, Waleed said. Some of the more popular regions have seen deforestation increase as locals cut down trees to build more accommodations to meet the demand.

“The country is at an exciting pivotal point right now: because it was so overlooked by tourism for decades, it basically has the opportunity to design a sustainable tourism industry from the ground up,” Reynolds said. “If a strong foundation is laid down now, the country will prosper in the coming years, and can serve as a model to other overlooked developing countries hoping to increase tourism.”

Photo Credit: Pakistan sees tourism as a way for economic growth. This photo was taken in Karimabad, in the Gilgit Baltistan territory, a popular region for tourists. Alex Reynolds / Lost With Purpose