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23 Apr, 2007

Indo-Pak Tourism Connectivity “Can Build Peace”

South Asian tourism officials are to meet in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad this week to discuss ways to boost people-to-people “connectivity”, a significant diplomatic upgrade from the former usage of the word “contacts.”

The meetings of the UN World Tourism Organisation’s Commissions for South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific will closely follow the 14 th summit of South Asian leaders between 3-4 April, at which several measures were tabled to fulfill what Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called “the dream of full regional connectivity.”

This language was reflected in the official summit communiqué which said that the South Asian leaders “recognised the importance of connectivity” in fulfilling the objectives of an economically-advanced South Asian region free of poverty, disease and illiteracy.

Said the communiqué, “It was vital to first have better connectivity within South Asia and then with the rest of the world. They agreed to improve intra-regional connectivity, particularly physical, economic and people-to-people connectivity.

“They agreed to the vision of a South Asian community, where there was smooth flow of goods, services, peoples, technologies, knowledge, capital, culture and ideas in the region.”

Although the South Asian countries are working on developing a multi-modal intra-regional transport system, Mr Singh said that “merely building roads and railways” will not be enough without “actually making travel freer and easier.”

He said, “Connectivity — physical, economic and of the mind, enabling us to use fully our geographical and resource endowments, has historically been the key to our region’s peace and prosperity. South Asia has flourished most when connected to itself and the rest of the world.”

Mr Singh added, “As an immediate step, India is announcing a unilateral liberalization of visas for students, teachers, professors, journalists and patients from SAARC countries. Let us aim to double the intra-SAARC flow of tourists in the next five years.”

Last week in New Delhi, Pakistan’s Tourism Minister Nilofar Bakhtiar met India’s Tourism and Culture Minister Ambika Soni at the South Asian Travel & Tourism Exhibition (SATTE) and discussed ways to take these plans forward. This is the first time that tourism ministers from both countries are women.

Pakistan, the “Partner Country” at the trade show, hosted the inaugural dinner on 19 April, took along a huge cultural delegation and exhibited at a large country pavilion along with an upbeat private sector, that included officials of Pakistan International Airlines and the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation.

In her speech at SATTE, Ms Soni said South Asia is witnessing unprecedented economic changes and for enhanced growth rates in the region, the need for greater connectivity in terms of rail, road and air is important.

She said “people-to-people contact and connectivity are the best ways to have harmonious relationship and peace in the region.” She said efforts should be made to work on Tourist Circuits which will take people to at least two to three countries.

Indeed, this past month has seen a number of developments to take the process forward as both the Indian and Pakistani public and private sectors seek to send a strong message that they will no longer allow violence and extremism on both sides of the border to disrupt the broader public desire for peace and prosperity.

India and Pakistan tourism officials are also seeking clearance of proposals like the grant of tourist visas for groups to travel to each other’s countries.

According to the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP), group visas as a first important step towards inviting tourists from each other’s nations was mooted by India as a confidence-building measure sometime back. The idea was to identify certain tour operators in both countries who could be authorised to take groups of people on package tours.

After detailed discussions, group visas were close to being allowed before the bomb blasts on Delhi-Lahore Samjhauta Express in February stalled the decision.

India is now seriously studying the draft proposals put forward by Pakistan and group tourism visas may soon be a reality. “Ambika Soni has assured us that India will take a decision very soon on the issue,” Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India Shahid Malik was quoted as saying by the (APP).

While Pakistan has proposed that the group must comprise a minimum of 10-12 people, it is understood to be open to the idea of letting Indians travel in groups in more parts of the country and not just to specific cities.

Other developments to boost people-to-people connectivity are also making headway.

A South Asian Car Rally that started from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh on March 15, ended with festivity and traditional dances in Male, the Maldives, on April 14. The first such rally ever organized, it covered over 9,765 kilometers through Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Marking the event, Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom said that “the smooth passage of the rally vehicles through the borders of the SAARC countries demonstrates that if the governments in the region cooperate each other, intra-SAARC connectivity can be greatly enhanced, which increases intra-region trade and arrival of tourists.”

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