Aurora Magazine

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Pakistan calls!

Published in Nov-Dec 2019

Urooj Hussain on the evolution of tour agencies in Pakistan.

In the beginning...

About a decade ago, if someone mentioned ‘tour agency’ or ‘tour company’, what came to mind was a dingy office somewhere in a congested part of the city. These operators would offer standard level packages for international travel. As for domestic travel, the options would be limited to a weekend in Murree or Naran/Khaghan or Swat at the most. The more adventurous would perhaps go to Shogran or Siri Paye. Anything other than this was not considered mainstream. Only people living in northern Pakistan would consider venturing to Hunza, Skardu and beyond, either by car or by hiring a coach. Such places had not yet been explored by a wider public. Sindh and Balochistan were not seen as suitable destinations for tourists. They were known as underdeveloped areas and people would not even think of going there unless they had relatives living there or for business purposes.

How it started

Domestic tourism started to gain traction in 2013, when a handful of tour operators upped their game by offering tours all over Pakistan, including to now well-established spots such as Hunza and Kashmir, as well as Gwadar and Gorakh. As a result, these locations experienced an upsurge in visits due to the many people who started sharing their travel experiences on social media. Suddenly it became ‘cool’ to travel. This also gave rise to the travel blogger/vlogger (an established phenomenon in the West but unknown in Pakistan). In a country where the biggest entertainment was (and arguably still is) food, domestic travel became the next big frontier for entertainment.

Where we are now

Domestic tourism and international tourists to Pakistan are on the rise. In 2018, 1.9 million overseas tourists visited Pakistan compared to the 565,212 in 2013. Although impressive, these numbers are overshadowed by the number of local tourists keen to explore their country. Pakistan’s domestic tourism industry is estimated at 50 million tourists who travel within the country on short trips, usually between the summer months of May and August. (source: Wikipedia)

Marketing evolution

Previously, the kind of marketing undertaken by tour companies was rather unimpressive and mostly confined to long-winded text-based Facebook posts with low resolution photos and hastily made creatives, at times with typos. Most of this information was passed on by word-of-mouth and there were hardly any paid promotions. Despite this, the organic traction these tour companies gained was far above the benchmark set by other brands and services, simply by virtue of their unique product offerings. As the appeal for travel within Pakistan increased, more and more people approached tour companies. Today, tour companies are using digital marketing to promote their services from Instagram to YouTube vlogs. They are also leveraging local and international influencers to promote their services. How often have you seen a post about an influencer taking a weekend trip up north with an aesthetic picture attached? The chances are that the trip was sponsored by a tour company – this is not declared as such as there are no rules in this regard. Then, there are customised merchandise and mall activations that tour companies invest in to reach more potential travellers.

Future of tour agencies

Customisation is the name of the game. A lot of people like to travel, but everyone’s style of travel and preferences are different. Some want luxury tours end-to-end, others to rough it out and still others are limited in their options due to travelling with small children. As a result, tour operators are abandoning standard packages in favour of customised options. Yoga retreats are increasing in popularity and agencies such as Tactack offer yoga retreats in serene locations such as Shigar and Khaplu in Skardu (a premium experience for those who want to enjoy the mountains). For bikers, Pakistan Bikers specialise in guided bike tours in various parts of Pakistan (mostly in the north) and offer bikes for rental. Photowalking and Photo Tours cater to aspiring and professional photographers. The beauty of Pakistan pulls locals and foreigners alike to capture the perfect shot – be it Lulusar Lake, Passu Cones, the architectural beauty of Lahore and Peshawar, or the remote islands off the coast of Sindh. Trekking/adventure tours are aimed at hardcore adventurers who want to trek to the K2 or Nanga Parbat base camps, for example. In this respect, special permits may be required. In terms of event based tours, these include the Shandur Polo Festival, the Skardu Desert Rally, the Kailash Festival, and the Cholistan Desert. Royals Adventure Club and Rover Pakistan are among the many companies offering these tours.

What’s next?

According to the Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2017 released by the World Economic Forum, the direct contribution of travel and tourism to Pakistan’s GDP in 2015 was $328.3 million, constituting 2.8% of the total GDP. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the direct contribution of travel and tourism to Pakistan’s GDP in 2016 was $7.6 billion (Rs 793 billion), constituting 2.7% of the total GDP. By 2025, the government predicts tourism will contribute $7.1 billion to the Pakistani economy.

Clearly, travel and tour agencies in Pakistan have evolved. From adapting to the new-age marketing style to showcasing their services and going above and beyond to create the most unique experiences for their customers, they have become integral to increasing both domestic and international travel in Pakistan.

Urooj Hussain is a media strategist by profession and travel blogger by passion. She blogs at