Pakistan looks to tourism to fight terrorism

Despite an 'image problem,' the country hopes visitors can help fight poverty - and extremism.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Pakistan has declared 2007 its year of tourism. And what a year it's been: dozens of bombings, the capture of a Taliban lieutenant, and now the Chief Justice of the country's Supreme Court has been sacked, setting off violent street clashes.

While promoting tourism isn't likely to take precedence over finding Al Qaeda leaders, President Pervez Musharraf's regime is making hard-selling Pakistan's softer side a priority. Still, how do you lure tourists when you are presumed to have terrorists?

But many, including the United Nations, see this as a novel approach to stability: Get more tourists, generate income, and the number of terrorists could decrease.

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"There are problems of security, problems of services. But we have to explore the potential [of tourism here]," says Jorge Sequeira, director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Pakistan. "Not just to generate income, but to promote social stability."

Security forces: A better image, economy

With characteristic bravado, Pakistan's strategy is to take an unconventional approach to a pressing chicken-or-egg question: secure stability first or tourism? They'll bring in tourists first, through Destination Pakistan 2007, a year of promotional events including a ski tournament in the Himalayas and a jeep rally in the Cholistan desert. Of course, there could be suicide bombings in between.

"We have an image problem, yes, but doing nothing about it would not help," says Salim Gul Shaikh, secretary of the Culture Ministry.

The effort gets to the heart of Pakistan's existential crisis: one side is progressive and rapidly adopting the accoutrements of the West; the other, conservative, and perceived as dangerous by potential visitors.

"There has to be a balance. Obviously we have to keep our culture," says Sheikh Fayyaz Ahmed, promotions manager for the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation.

Mr. Ahmed and others are banking on cultural assets like Taxila, which is home to one of the world's most extensive remains of early Buddhist civilization, earning UNESCO's distinction as a World Heritage site. And it's just an hour's drive from Islamabad, on good roads. With the Muslim call to prayer echoing over Greek and Buddhist ruins, it's a timely reminder that Pakistan is a historical crossroad of faiths and ideas.

Tourism promotes interaction between Pakistanis and foreigners – a dose of good PR that both sides need, observers say.

"The key is knowledge. As we are misrepresented in the media, so, too, is the West," says Naeem Tahir, director general of the Pakistan National Council of the Arts.

Tourism could also boost badly needed stability: by helping reduce poverty, it can soften the conditions that drive extremism.

"Culture is an integral part of development," says Mr. Sequeira, who points out that tourism is the world's second-fastest growing industry.

Pakistan is ramping up its game. Millions in investment and rising tourism revenues have expanded employment in the tourism industry from about 320,000 in 1998 to 600,000 today, mostly in rural areas where development is needed most, according to government figures.

'One of the best countries ... [for] tourism'

Still it won't be easy. Farhat Abbas sells trekking tours where Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda top brass are alleged to hang out. Mr. Abbas, with his unlikely optimism, typifies the predicament of tourism in Pakistan – and the country.

"Pakistan is one of the best countries in the world to enjoy tourism," he says, in the Islamabad office of Alpine Trekkers, his touring company since 1999. Among the attractions: K-2, the second-highest mountain peak after Everest, and six UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Despite Pakistan's bad press, the Ministry of Tourism reports that nearly 800,000 foreigners visited in 2005, including more than 120,000 Americans, although this may include Pakistanis with foreign passports.

Still, Abbas says he's faced a big slump since 9/11: He used to get 25 foreign groups in a good year; now he's lucky to get six. He's been trying to persuade tourists that things are not that bad. "It's very safe. Believe me, the tourists who are visiting our country, most of them are repeatedly coming," says Mr. Ahmed.

He may have a point. As in many developing countries, tourists are more likely to be bothered by unreliable transportation and a lack of potable water than a terrorist attack.

Still, many in Pakistan wonder if 2007, a turbulent election year, is the best time for a major tourism drive. A poignant reminder came in Abbas's office. While discussing the benefits of tourism, he gestured toward the news on TV: lawyers battling police outside the Supreme Court. Pakistan just lost its Chief Justice, putting the rule of law, already a bit spotty, on shakier ground. "I think this will create some problems for the government," Abbas says.

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