Published in Nov-Dec 2021
MAMUN M. ADIL: Who are the people backing Discover Pakistan?
KAISER RAFIQ: Options International SMC (registered in Pakistan and the UAE), owns Discover Pakistan; they also own eight to 10 organisations, including Mechatronics Engineering & Construction, I-Trip Travel and Tours, a chain of 11 restaurants and cafés and an electronics business called Mobile Square in Lahore. Before applying for a licence, PEMRA require a company to be established and have a minimum paid-up capital of over Rs 50 million. We obtained a licence for Discover Pakistan and paid Rs 46 million for it.
MMA: Why did you decide to launch a travel TV channel?
KR: I have a background in tourism and have worked in this sector in Dubai; I was the Advisor for Business Development to the ruling family and a member of the Dubai Tourism Authority. I also own two tourism-related companies in Dubai – Vienna Tours and Dubai Limousine. During my time in Dubai, the tourism sector grew significantly; before Covid-19 struck, revenues increased from $10-12 billion to $92 billion and I played a part in this. Pakistan is not a major tourism hub because we are perceived negatively abroad and our tourism assets are either not well-known or not presented in line with international standards. We launched Discover Pakistan to boost tourism in Pakistan and change the perception of the country globally.
MMA: Why is this important to you?
KR: The Western media has destroyed the perception of Pakistan; I gave a lecture in Vienna (Austria) on behalf of the UAE Government and someone asked me, “Dr Kaiser, do you have cars in your country?” This question was based on the clips that people abroad see about Pakistan. It struck me that launching this channel would be a good way to pay back to our country and change how it is perceived abroad.
MMA: What challenges did you face launching the channel?
KR: Acquiring a licence took several years; hiring people was also a challenge. Most of the producers, cameramen and non-linear editors we hired came from news channels and were not well-versed in using high-tech cameras and drones. They were not used to making documentaries and outdoor programming that matched international standards. We held training sessions conducted by international media consultants from New York and London; we also made them watch hundreds of programmes aired on BBC Earth, Discovery, National Geographic and other relevant channels.
MMA: How is Discover Pakistan’s programming different from what appears on other channels, be they offline or online?
KR: Our content is extremely research-based and not restricted to popular sites. We showcase unexplored destinations; for example, we covered Turbat Valley in Balochistan and recently we sent a team to the Takhtu Peak in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The team was led by the well-known mountaineer Ahmed Mujtaba Ali, and they discovered a lake which we called Lake Pakistan because it is shaped like the map of our country. We discover many sites and go into a lot of detail. Furthermore, we are one step ahead in identifying the tourism and investment hotspots in Pakistan.
MMA: How many bureaus do you have and where are they located?
KR: We are based in Lahore and have remote teams in Karachi and Islamabad. Although we are ambitious, we have budgetary restrictions, as no advertising revenue is coming in at this point. We edit most of our programmes in our studios in Lahore and have a small editing suite in Karachi; our team in Islamabad goes to Lahore for editing. Instead of reporters, we have ‘City Ambassadors’ – YouTubers or established content creators who cover positive events that depict a progressive Pakistan. If they make a major discovery, we send our team from Lahore to shoot it on a big scale. For example, in Hyderabad, our ambassador found a white sand desert with 180 oases and we sent our team from Lahore to make a documentary.
MMA: Is the channel aired in other countries?
KR: Discover Pakistan can be accessed from anywhere in the world and our viewership is increasing daily. According to Medialogic, this week we were watched by 22 million unique viewers per day in Pakistan on TV/cable for over a minute, which is a substantial number. Our channel is streamed from Canada, which allows us to track viewership and the numbers are moving to over one million a month. Our international viewership, be it via TV or digital, has crossed 500,000 people a day. Surprisingly, Germany has the highest viewership of 100,000-125,000 and is followed by Japan. I did some research on why this was the case because I was expecting our primary international viewership to be based in the US or UAE and I discovered that Germans love to travel and explore new places.
MMA: What are your more popular shows?
KR: Discovery Ride, which features Zenith Irfan, a well-known biker, whose biopic Motorcycle Girl is on Netflix. She travels on her motorbike to specific destinations and explores the surrounding beauty and tourist hotspots, meets the people living there and showcases their culture, food and the handicrafts they make. Madventure is hosted by Ammad Mir, a well-known fitness trainer. The concept is to add a dash of ‘madness’ to adventure, which he does, whether he is jumping into a lake, mountaineering or rock climbing. The objective of the programme is to promote adventure tourism. Dil Hai Pakistani is hosted by Maria Wu who is Chinese; her motto is “I am not Pakistani but my heart is.” She speaks fluent Urdu and English. We are planning to air six new programmes; Rewild (a series on wildlife), No Limits (a ‘survivor’ show), Sat Sri Akaal Pakistan (about gurdwaras), Kisaan Ka Pakistan (promotes agriculture and agri-tourism) and French Traveller (the travel diaries of a French tourist in Pakistan.)
MMA: Why the emphasis on foreigners as hosts?
KR: Although foreigners charge more, they attract more viewership. Their shows resonate with people overseas because they see non-Pakistanis promoting tourism, which can then translate into more tourists coming to Pakistan. For example, CCTV China has asked us to dub Dil Hai Pakistan so that it can be aired in China.
MMA: Who is your target audience?
KR: Although we were primarily targeting young people, surprisingly, a large chunk of our audience is older, especially among TV viewership; young people watch us online.
MMA: How are you promoting the channel?
KR: Digital marketing primarily and it has been so successful that 90% of cable operators in Pakistan are offering our channel (according to Media Monitors). At times, cable operators require channel owners to pay for this facility, but we didn’t have the budget; our strategy is to create the demand for viewership.
MMA: Is it a challenge getting advertisers on board?
KR: We wanted to increase our viewership before hiring a sales team to bring in advertisers and now that we have achieved our base viewership targets, we have started the process. We didn’t want to air advertising until now because we foresaw that advertisers would not want to us pay our rates because we were a new channel. Due to positive reports by Medialogic, Media Monitors and public opinion, we have appointed a GM Sales and that too after at least 15 companies expressed an interest in sponsoring our shows. We hope that from January onwards we will be able to raise considerable revenue from advertising and break even within a year.
MMA: How well is your travel-centric e-store, the ‘Discover Shop’, doing?
KR: Discover Shop is starting to do well. We are expanding the product line to include all tourism-related products and plan to open an offline store. We also plan to establish iTrip, a destination management company to provide authentic information and professional services to tourists.
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