Pakistan serves up religious tourism for Hindus, Buddhists

Nilofer Bakhtiar, Pakistan’s tourism minister says there’s much in store for tourists, including new flight connections, and shopping and food festivals. By Mubasher Bukhari
Ruins of Buddhist temples dating to 100AD at Taxila

HOW do you see tourism in Pakistan at present?
Unfortunately, Pakistan has faced several internal problems during last one decade.

Terrorism and sectarianism, in particular, created serious law and order problems across the country that led to declining numbers of tourists. But given the initiatives of the current government, Pakistan is once again attracting tourists from everywhere. The recent Shandoor Polo Festival endorses our claim. This year, over 45,000 spectators came to the highest polo ground of the world, the majority international tourists.

What sort of revenue does tourism generate?
According to the State Bank of Pakistan’s report last year, Pakistan earned 85 million dollars from tourism industry last year, and we intend to double this figure in a few years.

What plans do you have to promote tourism to Pakistan?
First of all, we are trying to improve law and order across the country because when a foreign tourist intends to explore any place, law and order is his first concern. We have been facing law and order trouble in northern areas of Pakistan for last several years, and those areas are under our focus now. We have chalked out a marketing strategy involving 14 countries from the region and other continents and their tour operators. We have decided to celebrate 2007 as ‘Visit Pakistan Year’ for which we will publish a calendar of events and will also invite tourist operators and tourism writers to Pakistan in order to brief them about our efforts for tourism promotion.

What new innovations can we expect, then?
We have introduced different kinds of religious tourism like Gandhara Tourism that would attract tourists from Japan, China, Korea and other countries with a majority of Buddhists. To that end, we are renovating Buddhist historical places like Taxila and Mohenjodaro and will provide every facility to them. Secondly, we have planned Sikh, Hindu and Sufi tourism and historical places like Nankana Sahib, Panja Sahib, Tilla Jogian and shrines of Sufi saints would not only attract Sikh and Hindus from all over the world but also Muslims from Arab states, Iran, Syria and African countries.

Your plans need a soft visa policy. What will you do for it?
We have already approved a new visa policy to facilitate tourists from 24 countries. If tourists from listed countries come through licensed tour operators, they will get visas on arrival.

In terms of religious tourism, the fact of the matter is that a majority of the religious tourists are Indians and NRIs and they face serious visa troubles. Have you softened your visa policies for them?
We have made revolutionary changes in our visa policy for Indian tourists. Previously, a religious tourist was granted a five-day stay in Pakistan, now they are given a 15-day stay, so they can travel to places of pilgrimage without time pressures. For common Indian tourists, we have extended their stay up to 30 days. I believe if Pakistan and India cooperate with each other for general tourism, both would receive considerable monetary benefit.

What do you offer to Arab tourists?
Pakistan is a Muslim state that has lot of things for Arab tourists. We have five of the highest peaks of the world, some of the largest rivers, crystal-clear lakes where one can catch a fish with one’s hands, large meadows among the highest mountains. We share religious values with Arab tourists and have lot of things in common. I recently met Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, the honorary chairperson of the UAE Red Crescent, who told me that Arab tourists, especially, women, want the maximum shopping opportunities in one place. So we have decided to hold a Grand Shopping Festival in Lahore like the Dubai Shopping Festival next year. We have also planned a grand food festival next year for Arab tourists. Sheikha Fatima told me that the Arab tourists also want direct flights from UAE to Pakistan’s Northern Areas, and we are now planning direct flights from the UAE to Gilgit and Sakardu.

It appears as if your ministry is only promoting Punjab and the Northern Areas. What do you say?
That’s the wrong impression. We are taking all provinces along. We organized a grand desert rally in Oghbara, Baluchistan on August 14 that was attended by a large number of people from Arab states. We also intend to organize an extravaganza at Ormara, situated between Gaddani and Pasni, two districts of Baluchistan. We have also planned to offer Balajaba-Gwadar Package for the New Year, which will see a series of events at beach and vast ranges of mountains in Baluchistan.