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Pakistan's tourism czar has it tough

Shahzad Qaiser promotes his country's undoubted delights, but turmoil has a way of undermining him.

January 27, 2008|Laurie Goering | Chicago Tribune

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Pakistan should be one of the world's great tourist destinations.

It is home to some of the most stunning Himalayan peaks, including K2, the second highest mountain on Earth, and gorgeous alpine valleys filled with wildflowers. There are ancient stone Buddhas carved into the mountains, Indus Valley ruins from the dawn of civilization, historic forts, beautiful Arabian Sea beaches and deserts perfect for camel trekking.

Sadly, Pakistan also is home, by most accounts, to Osama bin Laden, thought to be hiding along the border with Afghanistan, and to an increasingly bold corps of suicide bombers, 60 of whom blew themselves up around the country last year.

That, combined with growing political unrest and Islamic fundamentalism in the nuclear-armed state, make Shahzad Qaiser's job -- promoting foreign tourism in Pakistan -- one of the most challenging in the world.

"People died in Lahore the other day. [Opposition leader Benazir] Bhutto has been assassinated. Nobody can hide these facts," acknowledged Qaiser, Pakistan's secretary of tourism. "But we are fighting the odds, with spirit."

Qaiser, an ebullient, witty man, is a published humorist, a poet, a psychologist and a doctor of philosophy, all important qualifications in a man doing a job that never seems to give him a break.

In December, he invited 18 paragliding experts from the United States, Britain and France to a paragliding and motorboat show in Islamabad, the capital, part of the country's annual tourism convention. They arrived Dec. 27 -- the day Bhutto was killed. With the nation in an uproar and looters in the streets, the visitors spent three days holed up in Islamabad's posh Marriott Hotel before heading home when the show was canceled.

"Everyone was in high spirits. They said their perception of Pakistan had changed and they promised to come back in March" for the rescheduled show, Qaiser said. Still, it wasn't quite the image transformation he'd been seeking.

The beleaguered secretary's message is a simple one: Pakistan isn't as dangerous as you think and it's a lot more beautiful.

"By the grace of God, there has not been a single incident of any terrorist attack on a tourist," Qaiser said. "In spite of all the terrorism and political problems we are facing, the people of this country are tourist-friendly. Our religion and culture give prominent place to hospitality."

There's no denying that Pakistani hospitality is among the warmest on Earth. Bombings in the country have for the most part targeted police, military and political leaders, though a few tourist hotels have been attacked too.

The crime rate is low, as are prices, and most Pakistanis, who benefit from tourist dollars, are genuinely thrilled to see visitors. At times it can seem that the biggest danger in the country is insomnia from drinking endless cups of tea, or shoulder sprains from trying to lug home suitcases full of ridiculously inexpensive wool carpets and cashmere sweaters.

Still, Pakistan remains the kind of place your mother doesn't want you to visit, one the U.S. State Department advises to avoid except for "essential" travel.

"Somehow we have not been able to respond positively to these negative travel advisories," Qaiser said. "But for me, if you come as a tourist, it's like entering a safe haven."

That's not to say the Ministry of Tourism hasn't had its own problems. When Taliban-linked Islamic extremists took over parts of the scenic Swat Valley last year, the ministry was forced to shut its hospitality training institute there and six state-owned hotels.

The ministry faces other problems as well. Efforts to build tourist resorts on the scenic beaches of Baluchistan, facing the Arabian Sea, failed when bikini-wearing visitors offended local Muslim sensibilities. Now the ministry is hoping instead to promote water sports for locals in the region, and trips to watch a local ship-breaking yard.

"Somehow we have not been able to develop beach tourism," Qaiser said. "The Western concept of beach luxury somehow is not in consonance with our cultural traditions."

Besides Pakistani natives returning from abroad, most of the tourists coming to Pakistan each year are Britons, Americans, Japanese, French and Afghans, Qaiser said. Many come for adventure sports -- mountain climbing, trekking and the like -- or to see cultural and religious attractions, including the country's impressive array of Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist shrines and historical sites.

But despite a concentrated campaign to attract new visitors, including promotions in tourism fairs around the world, Pakistan's tourist numbers are dropping. Last year the country drew about 900,000 tourists, down 6% from the year before, Qaiser said -- no surprise given recent developments.

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