Mar 12, 2009

Tourist plunge exacerbates Pakistan woes

KARACHI: Fida Hussain, 52, was once a frequent visitor to Pakistan's scenic northwest, driving north into the mountains every time he flew over from the United States. But not any more.
‘I won't go to Swat or any other place in the area as the Taliban rule there now and no one is guaranteed safety,’ Hussain said.
Thousands of fighters loyal to Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah have waged a blistering campaign to enforce sharia, or traditional religious law in Swat valley, once affectionately known as the Switzerland of Pakistan.
‘I last went three years ago – it was heaven on earth, with a beauty beyond imagination. Now all is doomed,’ Hussain said on a recent visit to relatives in Karachi.
He is just one among many thousands who have scratched Pakistani resorts from their holiday wish-lists – and in doing so ensuring that the tourism sector adds to the country's growing economic woes.
The bloody attack on touring Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore this month was just the latest high-profile militant attack in an avalanche of violence that has killed more than 1,600 people since July 2007.
The World Economic Forum's Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2009 put Pakistan at 113 out of 130 countries.
The decline has been slow but steady since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States but reached a crescendo last September when the Marriott hotel in Islamabad was bombed, with 60 people killed.
‘Terrorism halved our receipts from tourism last year,’ tourism minister Ataur Rehman told AFP.
Pakistan earned 16 billion rupees ($200 million) from 800,000 visitors in 2007. Fewer than 400,000 visitors came in 2008, bringing in just eight billion rupees.
‘People are not coming from the rest of the world as they have been advised by their governments not to go to Pakistan,’ Rehman said.
‘Terrorism has affected investment in the country, made our beautiful places short of tourists and now forced sportsmen out of Pakistan.’
Pakistan has diverse culture, a rich archeological heritage, ruins from the ancient Gandhara and Indus civilisations, serene valleys, pristine coastline and vast deserts.
K-2, the world's second highest mountain after Everest, sits atop a region of 120 other peaks that soar above 7,000 metres (22,950 feet).
But buffeted by bombings, insurgency and global financial turmoil, Pakistan was hit last year by 25 per cent inflation and saw $10 billion wiped off its international reserves in the year to October 2008.
The country only managed to stave off a looming balance-of-payments crisis when the International Monetary Fund approved a stand-by loan of $7.6 billion and released an initial $3.1 billion in November.
Hotel industry and tour operators have been hard hit. Global recession and militant attacks have forced investors to abandon projects.
‘Plans for many new hotels have been shelved until the tourism industry improves,’ said Mustansar Zakir, chairman of Pakistan's Hotels Association.
He said nationwide hotel occupancy fell to 35 per cent from 50 per cent after the attack on the Sri Lankans, down from 70 per cent before the Marriott blast.
Many Western countries have issued advisories against travel to Pakistan and European airlines such as British Airways and Lufthansa have suspended routes to the nuclear-armed Muslim nation.
There were hundreds of hotels and guest houses in Swat before Fazlullah rose up in July 2007. What few remain are deserted.
‘Thousands of people associated with hotels and tourism in that area have lost their jobs,’ said Zahir Khan, head of the Swat hotels association.
Rehman believes that Sri Lanka, which has a healthy tourism market despite the civil war with Tamil separatists, could be the most pragmatic example.
‘Is it the fault of our rivers, mountains, deserts and blossoming flowers that we are victims of terrorism? We should not stop attracting tourists and follow what Sri Lanka did,’ he said.
‘Being a tourist in the 21st century requires some courage,’ he said.

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