THE government’s approach towards reviving tourism in Pakistan appears confused and riddled with contradictions. Barely a month after Prime Minister Imran Khan announced the reopening of the tourism sector — an inexplicable move given the rising numbers of Covid-19 cases in the country — PTDC motels in the north have been closed and employees sacked. Incidentally, Mr Khan had also pointed to potential joblessness in the tourism sector as being a factor in its reopening. According to the notification issued, the federal government and the PTDC board of directors were forced to take the step “due to continuous and irreparable financial losses” suffered by the organisation. Around 25 motels and 300 employees have been affected by this decision; six ‘sick’ PTDC motels and restaurants were shuttered in March last year.
A member of the National Tourism Corporation Board, under which the PTDC functions, has said that the government would focus exclusively on promoting travel to this country and the now closed properties will be privatised. While Pakistan’s tourism industry can barely even be described as a fledgling one — at least from the international perspective — its wealth of scenic landscapes, particularly its stunning mountain vistas in the north, has increasingly been getting noticed. The British Backpacker Society ranked Pakistan as its top travel destination for 2018, and last year Forbes termed it “one of the coolest countries to visit”. Unfortunately, the government failed to build on that momentum and goodwill, even though the prime minister has often correctly cited the potential for tourism to become a major source of foreign exchange. Even as recently as December 2019, Wanderlust, the UK travel magazine, singled out Pakistan as its “hot list destination” for 2020. The pandemic, of course, has derailed tourism everywhere.
Nevertheless, many mountains need to be climbed before Pakistan can become a preferred international travel destination. Its image has long suffered on account of extremist violence within its borders. The murder of foreign climbers by militants in Gilgit-Baltistan in 2013 was the last nail in the coffin. Although militancy has been crushed and law and order restored, it will take sustained multidimensional efforts to attract international tourists to Pakistan’s shores. According to the Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2019, the country is the least competitive in South Asia in this sector. Reducing visa-processing times and easing restrictions on movement of foreign visitors are sensible measures, but the tourism infrastructure is far from robust and does not inspire the kind of confidence that international travellers look for. In fact, the PTDC motels offered decent budget accommodation, but that too is now off the table. Hosting summits with an array of foreign travel influencers before getting the building blocks in place — such as a hassle-free method for visitors to travel within the country — is akin to putting the cart before the horse.
BIGOTRY and intolerance reigned supreme yet again last week, when authorities in the federal capital halted the construction of a Hindu temple in Islamabad. In a commendable move, Prime Minister Imran Khan last month had approved a grant of Rs100m for the historic construction of a temple for Islamabad’s 3,000-strong Hindu population which includes public- and private-sector employees, business community members and a large number of doctors. However, a story that began with an admirable decision soon took a dark turn. A group of clerics opposed the building of the temple, threatening action if authorities went ahead with the work. The construction was also opposed by political parties, including the JUI-F and PML-Q. Alas on Friday, the Capital Development Authority stopped the construction of the boundary wall on the plot meant for the temple, citing ‘legal reasons’. Although ‘legality’ and ‘fine print’ are being cited as the basis for which the construction of the temple wall was stopped, it is evident that the decision to stop building was taken after pressure was exerted by the groups that have so vocally opposed it. Officially, a CDA spokesman said the building control laws of the civic authority clearly stated that no activity could take place on a plot until the building plan was approved. However, a senior officer of CDA acknowledged that it was possibly the first time that this clause had been enforced as all owners were allowed to construct a boundary wall to ensure possession of their plot even while other formalities continue. Unsurprisingly, just this year, the very same CDA amicably ended a long stand-off with the Lal Masjid cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz by agreeing to give a piece of 20-kanal land for the construction of Jamia Hafsa in the capital. Why can’t the Hindu community be obliged in the same manner?
That intolerance has won the day is a sad indictment of the shrinking space for religious freedom in Pakistan. What is more disturbing is that a private news channel claimed ‘victory’ when the construction was halted — an indication of how deeply religious discrimination has permeated every aspect of society. For too long, this country’s minorities have been unfairly pushed against a wall by powerful groups that threaten and blackmail the authorities into submission. This will be a test case for the PTI government and the prime minister, who must ensure that the initial spirit with which this decision was taken prevails.
Women and the vote
IN a significant decision, the Election Commission of Pakistan has mandated that each province have at least one woman district election commissioner.The move is certainly a laudatory one and will hopefully lead to more women taking part in the electoral process, strengthening the practice of democratic decision-making. While the Constitution guarantees women the right to vote, fewer women show up to polling stations on the day of the elections, as compared to their male counterparts, because of a host of setbacks. Despite being half the population, Pakistani women are often treated as second-class citizens due to harmful and pervasive cultural norms that impact every facet of their life: from the quality of their health and education, to income and life expectancy. Increased participation of women in the elections — as voters and candidates — leads to more women-centric laws being tabled in parliament; or more laws that take women’s interests and lived realities into consideration.
With the Elections Act 2017,several new measures were introduced to ensure increased participation of women, including re-polling in any constituency where women’s turnout was less than 10pc. Additionally, the act of barring women from voting or contesting in elections was criminalised. And all political parties had to nominate women candidates in at least 5pc of their non-reserved seats. The ECP also encouraged the setting up of women-only polling stations, with all-women staff, so there would be less resistance to them voting in more conservative parts of the country. These measures showed success, to some extent, and increased participation by women was noted in the last general elections. However, it will take many years and sustained efforts for entrenched patriarchal norms to be dismantled. For instance, following the 2018 elections, the National Commission on the Status of Women released a report on women’s participation and found that even though the number of women candidates increased, the number of women who won on general seats decreased.