COVID-19 delays activities of Pakistan's domestic tourism industry

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Buddhist Heritage Site, Taxila, Punjab, Pakistan
Buddhist Heritage Site, Taxila, Punjab, Pakistan

This blog is part of the 'Act Now Pakistan' series focusing on ideas, policies and actions for Pakistan to recover stronger and better as the COVID-19 crisis subsides.

 

‘Tourism is our mainstay and we are quite excited about the season ahead. More tourists are expected for Eid-ul-Fitr (Muslim festival that follows the holy month of fasting) who might want to stay a little extra as this year, summer holidays in schools begin around the Eid,' chirped the representative of a local business association of Kaghan Valley, in Pakistan’s North West, back in February 2020.

Like many others in the tourism economy, he had his hopes pinned on the fact that, amidst several measures adopted by the government for improving tourist experience, Pakistan topped the Condé Nast Traveler’s list of best holiday destinations for 2020 in December 2019 

The visit of the royal couple Prince William and Kate Middleton and the maiden visit of the Buddhist Monk, the Most Venerable Arayawangso to Pakistan in October 2019 received international media coverage.

These events brought recognition to Pakistan’s heritage assets including 6,000 Buddhist monuments (including stupas and monasteries) located in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (KP).

Pakistan topped the Condé Nast Traveler’s list of best holiday destinations for 2020 in December 2019. 

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Most Venerable Arayawangso ringing the Bell of Peace in Peshawar Museum, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, October 2019
Most Venerable Arayawangso ringing the Bell of Peace in Peshawar Museum, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, October 2019
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Kartarpur Sahib Gurudwara, Punjab, Pakistan
Kartarpur Sahib Gurudwara, Punjab, Pakistan

The ‘Economic Revitalization of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and (erstwhile) FATA’ project (World Bank and Multi-Donor Trust Fund-sponsored) conducted a tourism sector analysis.

It showed that the four most visited destinations of the KP province recorded five million tourists in 2018.

These sites support 8,665 direct jobs in tourism value chain and contribute $5 million to the local economy through tourism receipts.

The numbers swelled during the summer when KP’s destinations received more than 2 million tourists during the four Eid holidays in June 2019.

The scenic valley of Hunza (located along the ancient trade route of Karakoram Highway) registered a phenomenal year on year increase in the tourist numbers between 2018 and 2019.

These sites support 8,665 direct jobs in tourism value chain and contribute US$5.0 million to the local economy through tourism receipts.

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Kalash Joshi Festival, Hunza, Pakistan
Kalash Joshi Festival, Hunza, Pakistan

Road improvements, a stable security situation, and an intense promotional campaign are contributing to the growth in tourism in Pakistan.

Being one of his priority economic sectors, the Prime Minister of Pakistan announced the government’s action plan to develop and promote tourism last year, including an on-arrival visa facility for group travelers and online visa processing for individual travelers  initially from five 5 countries with plans to roll out the service eventually to 100 plus nationalities.

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Badshahi Mosque, Lahore, Pakistan
Badshahi Mosque, Lahore, Pakistan

Fast forward to April 2020 – the world is dealing with a health emergency. 

The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has alerted that the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to a loss of $ 300-500 billion in tourism receipts globally. 

The OECD Economic Outlook report of March 2020 mentions that the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) operating in the tourism and transportation sectors are already significantly affected by the virus and the measures to contain it. Pakistan is no different. 

The country has reported 5,000 plus positive cases of COVID-19 despite intense containment efforts of the authorities.

Most international and domestic flights to and from Pakistan have come to a screeching halt following the instructions of government in March.

The tourist spots and public places (playgrounds, cinemas, shopping malls) were closed in mid-March across the country.

Most restaurants have either scaled down their operations to home deliveries and takeaway or had to close temporarily.

The preventive measures have challenged the sustainability of small eateries, street vendors and creative industries across the country, forcing the employers to send workers on indefinite and in most cases, unpaid leaves. 

The tourist spots and public places (playgrounds, cinemas, shopping malls) were closed in mid-March across the country.

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The Famous Food Street near Badshahi Mosque, Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan
The Famous Food Street near Badshahi Mosque, Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan

Startups including homestays and tour operators are suffering due to cancellations of group bookings.

Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has reported losses of around $18 million in March 2020 and Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) could be sending its workforce on paid leaves on a rotational basis.

The initial assessment fears that KP’s tourism sector alone will face a loss of $20 million in revenues and could slash around 260,000 formal jobs.

It is difficult to put a number on the losses of the informal sector at this stage.

Perhaps the only unintended positive consequence of the pandemic is that nature and wildlife will be able to take a break from the burden of over-tourism.

The public and private sector need to collaborate to help the industry cope with the impact of COVID-19 while preparing it for responsible tourism when the travel restrictions are lifted. 

Here are some suggestions: 

  1. Develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the workers, firms, and travelers;
  2. Design and direct financial support towards the tourism value chains including the microenterprises;
  3. Guide and support players including restaurants, hotels, homestays, and transporters to disinfect, upgrade facilities and train workers to adopt improved hygiene and safety practices;
  4. Use technology to introduce virtual tours of museums, heritage sites and ski resorts as a substitute for actual visits; and
  5. Plan and enforce on-site measures for better waste collection, plastics recycling, and traffic management.

Pakistani authorities are in the process of launching the support programs for the affected enterprises and daily wagers. 

Perhaps the only unintended positive consequence of the pandemic is that nature and wildlife will be able to take a break from the burden of over-tourism.

The KP province is using the resources available through the IDA-financed KP Integrated Tourism Development (KITE) project to; (i) immediately respond to the pandemic by providing medical equipment and supplies; (ii) support disinfection of the sites; and (iii) conduct a COVID-19 socioeconomic impact assessment, using project’s contingent emergency response component.

Post COVID-19, the tourism operations in Punjab and KP will continue supporting the planning and upgrading of tourist infrastructure and facilities  (roads, museums, rest areas), and overall policy and regulatory overhaul to enable private investment mobilization for the tourism zones, with a focus on restoring the livelihoods.

 

 

Authors

Kiran Afzal

Private Sector Development Specialist

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