(eTN) – As early as 1990, Benazir Bhutto outlined her vision of tourism as a major force in economic development for Pakistan. A New York Times article by Barbara Crosette on August 6, 1990 reported on Bhutto’s strategic policy outline for the development of tourism as a major industry in Pakistan and a means to create a livelihood for millions of Pakistani people.
Bhutto outlined a range of incentives for resort developers including tax holidays and investment incentives. She also spoke of establishing tourist resort zones which would be exempt from some strictures of the prevailing Islamic laws on alcohol consumption and dress codes. Bhutto also flagged the idea of an open skies policy as an incentive for airlines to include Pakistan in their routings. These ideas were formulated during Benazir Bhutto’s term as prime minister of Pakistan and were a demonstration of Ms. Bhutto’s foresight, sophisticated knowledge of international affairs, economics and her understanding of the critical role of tourism as a spearhead for Pakistan’s economic growth.
Tragically, Bhutto’s vision for tourism was mired in the tempestuous politics that has dominated modern Pakistan. As eTN editor Nelson Alcantara correctly stated in his article on the death of Benazir Bhutto (published on Dec. 28), Pakistan is country of tremendous tourism potential with dramatic scenic beauty, incredible history and cultural diversity.
In September 2006, the destruction of the face of the famous seventh century Rock Buddha statue by radical Islamists in the Swat Valley, a region described as the “Switzerland of the East” and Pakistan’s premier tourism region, symbolized the ongoing conflict between tourism in Pakistan and its nemesis–religious extremism.
A consequence of internal political instability has been the disappointing performance of tourism in Pakistan. In 2006 a mere 890,000 international visitors arrived in the country (many of whom were VFR travelers).
The advance of tourism in Pakistan has been subject to political and religious interference which at times have verged on the absurd. In April 2007, Pakistani Tourism Minister Nilofar Bakhtiar was subject to a fatwa from the Red Mosque for alleged lewd behavior when she took part in a sky dive to help raise money for the victims of the Pakistan earthquake. In a brief moment of elation, Bakhtiar embraced her sky diving instructor at the completion of the jump. Although she resisted the fatwa and calls for her resignation from certain Islamic clerics, she was eventually forced to resign in May 2007.
The progress of tourism in Pakistan has been affected by natural disasters including the 2006 earthquake. The country’s internal political instability and violence and volatility on its borders with Afghanistan in particular is the main barrier to tourism taking off in the country. Pakistan’s tourism officials were active participants in United Nations World Tourism Organization activities including the Davos conference on climate change in tourism held in October 2007. Pakistan’s tourism ministry is keen to build tourism in the country but is severely challenged by an unstable political environment and a perception frequently reinforced by negative publicity.
Since Bhutto’s assassination, the governments of the majority of Pakistan’s main tourism source markets have issued highly cautionary travel advisories. Australia’s national cricket team which is scheduled to tour Pakistan in March 2008 is now debating whether the tour should proceed. Cricket is the one sport which not only unites most Pakistanis but a tour of the Australian team presents a significant tourism opportunity. High profile opposition politician and former legendary Pakistan cricket captain Imran Khan is currently under house arrest just days before the scheduled Pakistan elections of January 8, 2008.
The assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the killing of scores of her supporters in suicide bombings since her ill-fated return to Pakistan in October 2007 have severely crippled the hopes of a return to democracy in Pakistan but have stilled the voice of a visionary advocate for tourism as means to address many of Pakistan’s economic and social problems.
Bhutto’s murder has aroused serious concerns in the Indian subcontinent and neighboring India is closely monitoring events. The recent thawing of relations between India and Pakistan which has led to a gradual re-opening of tourism in the Kashmir region will be a key issue of concern to Indian tourism officials.