If a raging Taliban insurgency wasn’t enough to deter would-be tourists, the revelation this past May that Osama bin Laden had been living for years in one of the country’s resort towns convinced even intrepid travelers to stay home.
“Tourism is next to nil,” Mehr Tarar, a columnist for Pakistan’s Daily Times, wrote last week. “To tempt people from any country to visit Pakistan would be more difficult today than to outline a workable peace plan between Palestine and Israel.”
Still, local tourism officials are trying, but their efforts sometimes border on the delusional or the pathetic.
This past summer Karachi’s chamber of commerce organized an event to attract foreigners titled “My Karachi: an Oasis of Harmony” during that city’s deadliest violence spree on record. Last winter, the owners of Pakistan’s only skiing resort declared it reopened years after the Taliban had destroyed the resort’s only hotel and chairlift. The problem? The hotel and chairlift are still in ruins, and skiers were forced to carry their skis uphill before hitting the slopes.
Other times the timing was not quite right. Pakistan’s government declared 2007 the “Visit Pakistan Year,” but that year also happened to be the birth year of the Pakistani Taliban, a group that has claimed responsibility for nearly every bombing that has taken place in the country since then.
After a decentralization process that was carried out last year, Pakistan’s tourism ministry was dissolved and the responsibility for tourism promotion was devolved to the provincial governments.
Armed with some of the country’s most spectacular scenery, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province — formerly known as North-West Frontier Province — has decided to forge ahead with aggressive tourism promotion.
At the end of last year, the province announced plans to revive a steam train between the province’s capital Peshawar and the Khyber Pass on the Afghan border. Earlier this month, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa participated in the International Tourism Fair in Madrid, the first Pakistani presence at the fair in more than a decade. Also this week, Peshawar’s chamber of commerce issued a blueprint to revive the province’s tourism sector.
Whether any of these efforts will pan out remains to be seen. Local tourism promoters bemoan the country’s bad rap and point out that most foreign tourists go back home unharmed, but Pakistan’s reputation for violence and instability still looms large in the minds of outsiders. The fate of two Swiss tourists abducted in July remains unknown.
At Takht-i-Bahi, a sprawling Bhuddist complex in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and a World Heritage site, longtime guide Iftikhar Ali said the number of foreigners who visited the site last year reached a grand total of 13. As recently as 2004, foreigners were a daily sight at Takht-i-Bahi. Now the site’s curators have closed underground chambers for fear that they be used by the Taliban to hide bombs.
Ali said improving the region’s security is the only sure way to bring back the foreign crowds.
“Before 9/11, many foreigners came here,” he said. “When the situation gets better many will come back.”