The province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) is Pakistan’s third largest province in terms of population and economy, and the smallest in terms of size. Boasting a rich history dating from the period of the Indus Valley and the birth of Buddhism, and extending to the Persian and the Mughal Empires, the area has a vast repertoire of diverse historical, religious and cultural heritage. In fact, diverse is one of the best descriptors that can be attached to KPK, whether one is referring to its geography, climate, languages, or ethnicities.
KPK is home to several treasures of local and global significance, and as the world slowly becomes cognisant of these hidden gems, there is considerable incentive to develop the tourism sector. Eighteen of Pakistan’s 29 nature parks are located within the confines of the province as well as a forts, archaeological sites and mosques.
The provincial government has taken notice of the potential for tourism and efforts are being made to boost the industry, with government expenditure going from Rs 86.23 million in 2013 to Rs 791 million in 2019. In this respect, the provincial government has been particularly farsighted in introducing a number of projects and policies to elevate the tourism industry to greater levels; the most significant is the introduction of Tourism Zones which will regulate commercial activities within tourism destinations as well as encourage foreign direct investment. According to the provincial minister for tourism, Atif Khan, 81 national and international companies have expressed interest in investing in four different tourism zones.
In addition to Galiyat, Naran and the Swat valley, the provincial government has identified 14 new destinations that will be developed as tourist destinations. An integrated plan has been prepared and includes infrastructure such as roads and highways, policy intervention and tourist facilitation services. The provincial government has recently kicked off the $70 million Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Integrated Tourism and Enterprise Development (KITE) project, with financing from the World Bank to improve infrastructure, enhance tourism assets and strengthen destination management for sustainable tourism development. By opening up more designated destinations and expressing intent to collaborate with the private sector, the government intends to expand the list of sites available to local and international tourists, thereby reducing the burden on existing locations.
The expansion of tourism owes a great deal to both the domestic and foreign tourists who made the effort to travel to these far off places even at a time when amenities were scarce. By sharing their experiences they have encouraged others to visit these parts. On this score it is essential to have unbiased travellers willing to highlight various sites through photography, videography, or travel literature. Not only does this bring some much neglected sites to the forefront, it also forces authorities to be accountable for the services they have promised to undertake as caregivers of these sites.
Efforts have also been made to make international tourism easier by providing visa on arrival for as many as 16 countries. By making the process as seamless as possible, at the very least a cumbersome application process will not be what keeps a visitor away.
As the tourism in the area is encouraged, it we bring benefits to local residents by creating jobs and providing incentives for the preservation of cultural heritage sites as well as ensuring the revival of handicrafts specific to a particular area. Tourism tends to bring attention to aspects of a region that are specific to it, such as language, clothes, handicrafts, food, and customs and lifestyles. As demand increases, local artisans will have greater motivation to disseminate the knowledge of their craft to fill the growing need, thus ensuring the renewed longevity of significant aspects of culture.
Digital platforms have also emerged to facilitate travellers along their routes - from accommodation, to location maps, to travel itineraries, to service help-lines. These tools ensure that standards can be met, and provide users the opportunity to influence the services they would like to see provided.
Concurrently with these efforts, is important to take steps to preserve the environment and heritage of the locations. Common issues that arise in the face of a sudden surge of tourist activity can be an influx of traffic, subpar waste management, pollution of local ecologies and degradation of infrastructure.
It is also necessary that the local administration ensures ease of travel and provides security, especially for women travellers, so that a significant segment of the population is not deprived of these activities. The introduction of the required infrastructure must be assured in order to facilitate visitors and ensure they do not damage the ecology of the surroundings. In terms of historic sites, special funds and dedicated teams must be allocated to preserve and restore them. All of these steps must precede a surge in tourists, so any negative outcomes can be avoided.
In view of the projects and policies under implementation, it is hoped that in the coming years a thriving tourism sector will be at the forefront of KPK’s growth.
Muhammad Uzair leads Blimp, a digital marketing & PR agency based in Peshawar.