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Pakistan is Uniquely Placed to Take Advantage of Religious Tourism

August 17, 2023

For the ninth year in a row, the tourism industry has grown more quickly than the world economy. More than a billion people travel abroad each year, with almost half of those trips going to underdeveloped nations. Pakistan is in a great position to benefit from this trend.

The rich collection of Sufi shrines, Hindu temples, Sikh gurdawaras, and Buddhist monasteries, as well as the opportunity to climb some of the highest mountains in the world, are all available to tourists. They can also simply enjoy the natural beauty, which ranges from Gilgit-Baltistan’s blossoming trees against a backdrop of snow-capped peaks to Gwadar’s pristine beaches.

Nevertheless, Pakistan’s tourism industry lags significantly behind that of India, Turkey, Sri Lanka, and the region as a whole, despite having a plethora of tourist attractions.

Compared to the regional average of 3.5 percent, Pakistan’s travel and tourism sector directly contributes only 2.8% of the country’s GDP.

Less than 1% of South Asia’s overall international tourist receipts ($33.82 billion in 2016) come from Pakistan, which is a significant source of foreign cash compared to India’s 69 percent, Sri Lanka’s 10 percent, and the Maldives’ 7 percent.

Furthermore, Pakistan’s share of travel and tourism has remained largely stable, in sharp contrast to India’s economy, which has seen substantial increases in this sector.

What is Pakistan’s tourism industry’s economic potential? What prevents us from realising our potential and what can be done to change it?

Boosting the Economy

What if Pakistan’s foreign tourism industry boosted the country’s GDP at a rate comparable to the rest of South Asia? The GDP would increase by $1.5 billion.

What if Pakistan exceeds South Asia and contributions from global tourism are average for the world? The increase in GDP would be $3.5 billion, which is the same amount as cotton, Pakistan’s biggest export at the moment.

Simple back-of-the-envelope estimates reveal that current domestic tourism has a sizable economic impact as well.

For instance, the Tourism Development Corporation of Pakistan (TDCP) has identified 480 heritage and religious sites in Punjab that are popular with domestic tourists. Of them, 106 are significant historically, 120 are significant religiously, and another 26 are both historically and religiously.

Using TDCP data on the number of visitors to each location and a modest average spend of Rs200 per trip per person, the money generated by these domestic visits is presently estimated at Rs54 billion per year, or two-thirds of what foreign tourists spend in Pakistan annually.

With the appropriate rules in place, Punjab alone could enhance domestic tourism’s earnings by three to four times.

The country of Pakistan is particularly significant for both Sikh and Buddhist tourists. Punjab once served as the capital of the only Sikh empire in recorded history. One of the holiest places for Sikhs is Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Baba Guru Nanak, which has the potential to draw as many visitors as the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Yet, only 6,000 Indian Sikhs travel to Pakistan annually, compared to more than 50 million who travel to the Golden Temple, which is located just 120 kilometres from Nankana Sahab.

Despite having less restrictions on diaspora Sikhs than on Indian Sikhs, the state controls and manages the number of pilgrims travelling to Pakistan each year and where they stay for political and security reasons.

A staggering 83 percent of the eight million Sikhs residing in the diaspora outside of India have expressed interest in travelling to Pakistan, according to poll data. Additionally, 79 percent of the 20 million Sikhs living in India expressed interest in travelling to Pakistan. Just 10% had actually entered the nation, in stark contrast.

The profile of current Sikh tourists, which is currently significantly biassed towards low-end visitors (those who won’t be spending too much), may change as a result of improvements in visa requirements, security, and infrastructure.

One way to increase visits from Indian pilgrims is to permit one-day visas for day trips to Nankana Sahib, which is only two hours away from Wagah.

Conservative estimates of the economic effects of increasing Sikh tourism, which maintain the current pilgrim mix and expenditure profiles as given and assume that only a small portion of Sikhs who expressed interest in visiting Pakistan actually do so, show an increase in Sikh tourists’ spending on goods and services in Pakistan of about 85 times. The amount currently spent, Rs 208 million, could virtually be Rs 18 billion.

This is based on the assumption that there are 44,000 visitors annually (a mix of diaspora and native Sikhs, with some high-spending and others low-spending tourists), the majority of whom stay for two weeks, with some only stopping by for a day, and who each spend between Rs4,000 and Rs20,000 per person each day.

However, the benefits to the economy go beyond these direct travel and lodging expenses. They cause indirect and induced expenditures, which have a knock-on effect throughout the economy.

The expansion of their facilities and increased supplier purchases by hotels are examples of indirect spending. Increased employment and economic activity in the area result in more spending on all goods and services in the region (induced effects) as the area becomes more active as a tourism centre.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, every penny of direct spending should result in an additional expenditure of Rs1.46. A further 1.55 jobs in associated industries are implied for every direct job in the travel and tourism sector. When these multiplier effects are taken into account, it is predicted that Sikh tourists will contribute a total of almost Rs44 billion annually, supporting more than 82,000 employment.

In a similar vein, 500 million Buddhists are thought to make up the global market for Buddhist tourism. They have a unique place in the Gandhara area of Pakistan, which includes Mardan, Taxila, and Swat. Particularly Korean Buddhists can trace their religious roots to Korean monk Hyecho, who moved to what is now Pakistan 1,300 years ago.

The oldest statue of the sleeping Buddha in the entire world, measuring 48 feet long, was just recently discovered in Haripur. A significant number of the 50 million Mahayana Buddhists in Korea, China, and Japan could be drawn to Takht-i-Bahi in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the sites in northern Punjab alone.

58 million “interested visitors” were discovered in a 2016 Gallup study of the Buddhist population throughout a chosen group of nations; of these, 2.9 million (or 5 percent) were “likely to visit” Pakistan. This potential is now being held back by a bad security situation, a lack of marketing and tourist amenities, and the absence of a functioning Buddha stupa.

If Pakistan could assist these tourists and realise just 1 percent of their potential, they would receive 29,000 visitors annually, generating $62.9 million in immediate revenue. Taking into account both the direct and indirect effects, Buddhist tourism has the potential to increase GDP by about Rs16 billion and create 30,772 new jobs.

What is Holding us Back?

What steps may we take to realise this potential? Pakistan’s security environment has been the main barrier previously mentioned in polls. Security has significantly improved, which indicates that the industry is about to pick up.

As a result, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf-led administration has demonstrated a strong interest in revitalising this industry. They approved the creation of a National Tourism Coordination Board after establishing a national task group on tourism. A new visa policy has also been revealed, along with plans to offer online visa services to 175 countries and simplify the requirements for No Objection Certificates in some areas.

Realising the immense potential of Chinese tourists and the effects that improvements in infrastructure generally have on international tourism, tourism continues to be a priority area of collaboration under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

However, there are still a few more issues that need to be addressed. A crucial one is having the right institutional and regulatory framework, which enables environmental sustainability, regulation, the supply of facilities, efficient management, and data-driven planning for understanding and luring tourists.

The tourism industry’s institutional and regulatory frameworks are nevertheless unreliable, convoluted, and in need of significant overhaul. Numerous authorities and departments work in this field without having any particular knowledge of managing historical or religious sites or according to international or Unesco norms. There are specialised management institutions, such as the Walled City Authority, but all significant sites require a uniform approach.

There are additional difficulties with federal-provincial coordination. Despite having no legal standing after the 18th Amendment, the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETBP) continues to maintain federal jurisdiction over select heritage sites.

The Katas Raj complex of seven historic Hindu temples serves as an illustration of how these problems have an influence. The provincial archaeology agency appears to have no control over the development and restoration of Katas Raj, and the ETBP lacks any internal conservation or restoration expertise.

Due to this institutional weakness, restorations including plaster and paint irrevocably obliterated any residual artefacts from the past. White marble was used to redo the floors and steps throughout the property, however it appears entirely out of place there. Most crucially, the Hindu holy pool of water has been defiled and dried up by surrounding cement plants.

Suo moto action was taken last year in response to media allegations, but the incident shows the regulatory inadequacies that have permitted significant and potentially irreparable harm to ancient monuments.

Poor institutional frameworks can also lead to problems with the tourism industry’s infrastructure, the private sector’s participation, marketing strategies, and the enforcement of quality standards.

The Punjab Tourism for Economic Growth report develops five strategic thrust areas: tourism infrastructure, safety and security, branding, developing talent for tourism services, policies for sustainable tourism that involve and benefit local communities, as well as regulation that preserves heritage sites. These areas are meant to address these issues and unlock the potential of tourism.

With these procedures in place, Pakistan can anticipate revitalising its tourism sector and reclaiming its proper position in the nation’s development.

Usama Shahid’s image of the Bibi Jawindi Tomb in Uch Sharif serves as the header.

This article is based on a report titled “Punjab Tourism for Economic Growth” by the Consortium for Development Policy Research, which was funded by the World Bank. Suleman Ghani, a former civil official and policy consultant, served as the team’s leader. The authors alone hold the opinions presented here.

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