Hope and Hazard in the Development of Pakistan’s Tourism Sector

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By Leylac Naqvi

Somewhere between what seems to be near-universal excitement over the potential for growing Pakistan’s tourism sector and near-universal acknowledgment of the environmental degradation and other negative effects tourism can bring with it, lies a question that urgently needs a good answer: how, exactly, will Pakistan get one without getting the other? Is that even possible?

The answer, inasmuch as one exists, must lie in the manner in which tourism is developed and managed, as well as limited. The economic, environmental and social impacts of tourism are all influenced by policy measures that the government may adopt and implement. Who will most benefit from tourism’s growth? What will be the extent of its impact on the environment? These and other critical questions will be determined in no small part by the quality of planning and the implementation of the adopted policy measures.

Naran is increasingly known for the damage wrought by unsustainable tourism.
Photo by Feisal Naqvi

Unfortunately, the consequences of poor or insufficient planning and management of tourism can be seen in so many places around the world. Some of the potential negative consequences of tourism – such as unplanned construction, litter, and overwhelmed infrastructure – are already evident in Pakistan’s north, which has seen large numbers of domestic tourists. It’s a sad story, and one that has been repeated many times before.

Pakistan has a vital opportunity, however, to learn from global experience and knowledge networks, of course with contextualization. International bodies like UNWTO, UNESCO, and UNCTAD can provide valuable policy advice. Academics, government officials from countries that have faced similar opportunities and challenges, and local organizations and actors (for example, LEAD Pakistan, with expertise in sustainable development, or the Aga Khan Development Network, which has done excellent work in Pakistan preserving cultural and historical sites while creating economic opportunity) are other sources of expertise and insights. Pakistan’s National Tourism Coordination Board, created in 2019 with a mandate which includes liaising with international organizations, can benefit from these resources. There is much to be learned from other countries’ experiences, both positive and negative: in the case of tourism this might mean looking to Costa Rica for lessons on sustainable tourism, and learning from negative experiences of overdevelopment and environmental deterioration, for example in parts of Thailand and the Philippines. Effective implementation must then give meaning to policy on the ground.

Old and new at the Tomb of Jahangir in Shahdara Bagh, Lahore. Photo by Leylac Naqvi

It is also important to ask: whose voices are heard and involved in priority setting, planning and decision-making when it comes to development? Is there transparency about development plans? When it comes to tourism, it is widely acknowledged that members of communities impacted by it should benefit from it and have a say in determining its development.

There is a long way to go before Pakistan’s potential as a tourist destination may be realized. Among other challenges, tourist infrastructure is very weak and security remains a real concern. Pakistanis, often the most self-critical, will be the first to admit that there is much need for improvement. However, Pakistan is an authentically marvelous place with generous and resilient people, a wealth of cultural and historical treasures, tremendous natural beauty, and incredible art and music and food. Perhaps in the face of the desire for development the greatest challenge may be preserving and protecting what is already there and enabling it to flourish.

About the author: Leylac Naqvi is an international development specialist based in Singapore. She lived in Pakistan for around five years.