By: Thomas J. Morrisey
Edited by: Alex Stuckey
PAKISTAN -- Although the international tourism industry in Pakistan has greatly suffered, the success of a few niche products and the determination of its travel professionals has kept it from completely disappearing.
In the past ten years, the war in neighboring Afghanistan has pushed militants into the frontier regions, and the Pakistani government’s renewed alliance with the United States has made it a target for terrorism.
“After 9/11, the number of western tourists declined considerably,” said Naiknam Karim, a tour operator with Adventure Tours Pakistan in the capital of Islamabad.
Despite these issues, two groups of international visitors have kept the industry alive — mountaineers and hunters.
Kaiser Khan, a veteran tour operator in Pakistan, said his business continues to survive because mountaineers and hunters choose destinations and guides based very heavily upon personal recommendations in their communities. Khan is the founder of Pakistan Guides in Rawalpindi, ten miles south of the capital.
“There are nine very rare animals that can only be hunted in Pakistan,” Khan said.
Khan also said the presence of many famous mountains in the northern part of the country, including K2, the world’s second tallest and possibly the most difficult to climb.
Both Khan and Liver Khan, another tour operator with Nanga Parbat Adventure in the capital, said the geographic location of Islamabad keeps tourists coming for these kinds of trips because it is close to the regions where hunting and popular mountains are located.
It also helps that most international flights land in the city, they said.
Many travelers Kaiser Khan works with land in Islamabad and move north to the mountains away from population centers and crowded areas that can be a target for attacks, he said.
Liver Khan said he encouraged his clients headed north to land in the southern city of Karachi instead of Islamabad because traveling via land, instead of air, will allow the traveler to experience the culture of Pakistan. However, he said he no longer advises exploring populous areas because of possible attack threats.
Tour operators who focus on cultural and historical tours of Pakistan in populous areas have severely cut their operations, and some have left the industry entirely.
Josephine Gregory, a British national who owns a tour company in Islamabad, moved there more than ten years ago when her husband took an administration position with a local company, she said.
Her company, Bespoke Tours of Pakistan, used to be busy guiding a variety of international visitors through the country, she said. Her clientele included “hardy travelers” as well as second generation Pakistani-Americans wanting to reconnect with their ancestry, she added.
Since the conflict in surrounding areas, Gregory’s situation has changed.
“I’ve only taken a couple of tours out there (in the past few years),” she said.
Gregory’s biggest difficulty with leading tour groups in the country is lining up insurance for the individuals, she said.
Now that Gregory has dramatically scaled back her business, she said she is now working with Kaghan Memorial Trust, a nonprofit organization working to establish a school in the region devastated by a powerful 2005 earthquake that killed 75,000 people.
Despite his work with renowned international mountaineers and hunters and his photography, which has been featured in several Pakistan travel guidebooks, Kaiser Khan said the western media does not focus on the good aspects of Pakistan, only the violence.
“In 36 years, this is the first interview I have ever given to the media,” Khan said.
“(The struggle to get positive media attention is) like an ant trying to fight an elephant, or a soldier trying to fight a huge army,” he said.
Tour operator Karim agreed that too much media attention is focused on the bad aspects of the country.
There are a variety of sites unique to Pakistan that would attract international tourists if the country capitalized on them, Kaiser Khan said. One of these sites is the remains of the Indus River Valley civilization, a contemporary of Ancient Egypt, he added.
He added that Pakistan’s diverse geography would attract tourists.
“There is not a single popular tourist destination in the world that can compare to Pakistan,” he said.
Kaiser Khan was critical of the Pakistan government’s tourism promotion efforts, noting that the country’s Ministry of Tourism experiences a high turnover in employees and most members are political appointees rather than professionals with expertise in tourism.
“By the time a government is old enough to take care of tourism, it’s gone,” he said, adding that the government withdrew funding for large booths at international tourism expositions.
He also said the government failed to promote education in fields like hospitality management, which has left Pakistan’s tourism industry to fend for itself.
Despite the problems Pakistan faces, Kaiser Khan said that potential visitors should consider the different security situations in various parts of the country, with more than half the population of the United States.
In the meantime, itineraries for many cancelled Pakistan tours are still listed on companies’ websites. By listing these itineraries, tour operators are anticipating a time when travelers can visit the country safely again.
Liver Khan said he was optimistic that he may be able to start resurrecting his tours soon.
“When the political stability is better, then there will be no problem,” he said.
Liver Khan added that the reemergence of Pakistani tourism will be vital to healing tensions between his country and the West.
“Tourism provides (Pakistan and the West) an opportunity to link to each other,” he said.
Liver Khan said that working in the tourism industry allowed him to meet people of many religion, race and culture, despite the fact that he was born in a very small, remote village in Pakistan.
“And I love all of them,” he said.