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20 Mar, 2006

Pakistan Seeks Tourism Dividend from Peace With India

BERLIN: Seeking to cash in on the peace dividend with India, Pakistan is also going on a tourism promotion offensive, a move that could give a big boost to Thai Airways’ flights to Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore.

Hashim Khan, Managing Director, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation, told a press conference at the ITB Berlin that although Pakistan’s “social and religious constraints do not allow us to offer tourism like in Thailand, Spain or Germany,” the country has many other cultural, historic and religious assets well worth promoting.

The strategic goal is to fit Pakistan into a wider axis of “Silk Road” itineraries with China and Afghanistan, build upon growing cross-border travel with India, boost travel within South Asia and attract visitors to its many places of interest to Buddhists, as well as Hindus and Sikhs.

Thai Airways is boosting its flights to Pakistan to take advantage of increasing business and leisure traffic between South and Northeast Asia. Last November, it became the first Southeast Asian airline to start flights to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.

Mr Khan said the country had benefitted from the appointment of former World Bank senior executive Shaukat Aziz as prime minister. He had split tourism off into a separate ministerial portfolio – as against being previously lumped with youth, culture and sports– and promised it “the moon and the stars” in marketing money. He declined to say exactly how much.

“We were always strapped for cash when part of a bigger ministry,” Mr Khan said. “And we have never seen a prime minister taking a personal interest in tourism. The world can expect a very big shift in attention towards tourism.”

The country’s visitor arrivals are tabulated as part of the July-June fiscal year. In 2004-05, Pakistan received 650,000 visitors and hopes to cross one million this fiscal year. He admitted that the thousands of people who came to help Pakistan after last year’s tragic earthquake are also classified as “visitors”.

Citing the ancient Buddhist Gandhara civilization in the country’s northern area bordering Afghanistan, Mr Khan said Pakistan this year would again organise a “Gandhara week”, as it did last year, inviting Buddhist scholars and writers from all over the world to celebrate the ancient culture.

“Thailand is the leading edge of the response we got from the Buddhist world” to last year’s conference, he said.

He noted that Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, was born and died in Pakistan, as well as the presence of many Hindu spots, some of which were visited by Indian politician L.K.Advani, a senior figure in the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

Mr Khan said the increasing frequencies of cross-border bus services with India, especially between Lahore and Amritsar, would greatly facilitate VFR traffic and religious pilgrimage.

There is also strong possibility of promoting tourism in cooperation with Afghanistan, which participated in this year’s ITB for the first time since 1980. He noted that many tour operators were packaging Afghanistan, especially the Bamiyan sites, and that Pakistan International Airlines was planning to step up frequencies from various Pakistani cities to both Gandahar and Kabul.

Mr Khan noted that the biggest impediment remained visa issuance, which is getting priority in terms of being sorted out, especially with India, which has the potential to become Pakistan’s largest source of arrivals.

He said Pakistan has proposed to India that visas for organised groups of citizens of the two countries should be cleared in 3-4 days, as against the more than two months presently. Another proposal is that individual visits should no longer be restricted to specific cities, as required by a now “obsolete” bilateral protocol signed more than 30 years ago.

Overall, he said, there has been “tremendous progress” in advancing travel relations with India. “You will be amazed at the way things are easing up. I think the time is not far that (more relaxed travel) facilities will be available to everybody.”

He expressed hope that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries would one day be able to issue single visas which, similar to the European Schengen visa, would allow them to visit several countries in one go.

A number of issues came up during the Press conference.

Journalists who inquired about the security situation were told to make a clear distinction between “facts and perception.” Insisting that Pakistan has far less sectarian-related violence than other South Asian countries, he added, “There are isolated acts of violence everywhere. Can you say America is a safe place? You cannot walk at night in many big cities, but people go there, too.”

One female journalist who asked about dress code for women visitors was told that they would face no problem as long as they observed the local tradition of dressing modestely and staying away from the kind of places that they would stay away from in their own hometowns.

The tourism promotion efforts are being matched by PIA which is now flying thrice-weekly non-stop to Toronto as of 3 March and plans to inaugurate thrice weekly non-stops to New York as of 28 March.

A new business plan for the 2006-2011 period approved last year envisages a fleet development plan of 12 Boeing 777s, 10 Turboprops, three new generation medium capacity aircraft, 3 Airbus A310 freighters and seven narrow body aircraft.

The airline has also just begun advertising to hire its first European stewardesses.

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