Pakistan is an emerging nation that is in the news for mostly the wrong reasons, and that’s a good thing. Prior to the 9/11 incident, very few in the West knew that Pakistan existed. After that day, Pakistan has become a sort of bogeyman with its name constantly in the news. Hollywood, too has not baulked from including our nation in its narratives, even if we leave aside the farcical Homeland that was a travesty even more appalling than most Bollywood portrayals of our homeland; Pakistan has appeared or being mentioned in movies like Iron Man, albeit in a negative light. To be in the mind is always better than to not be at all. And bad guy image or not, Westerners have heard about Pakistan.
The news has created an image of a country that seems not far from a Mad Max Fury Road scenario or just one day away from Somalia with warlords and chaos. We of course are well aware that our nation is anything but what is perceived. Taking a negative and reframing it might seem like hard work, but it actually is not. Before we talk about how to do it, let’s examine the assets that we possess that can be used to put our country on the world tourism map. I am of the opinion that there are three attractions that can be used to draw tourists to our nation.
First off is, of course, our food and legendary hospitality. In the recent past, we have had a few world-known food bloggers visit our nation, and most of them have been blown away by our food. The culinary palate from Karachi, that quintessential melting pot to the rustic food of Sindh, to the dishes of the Punjab plain and the delights of the Pathans, and also not forgetting the meaty foods of the Baloch, we have a vast and delicious array of dishes to suit all kinds of tastes and preferences. Add into the mix the local street food, the drinks, the sweetmeats, and the culture on show, and you have a recipe for an amazing trip for any food junkie brave enough and excited enough to come over.
The second prong in the trident of what Pakistan offers is, of course, our rich history and significance that, sadly, a lot of us as citizens are ignorant of. Pakistan is an ancient land steeped in traditions and bearing the mark of not only different civilizations such as the Aryans, Greeks, Macedonians, Sikhs, Afghans, Persians, and Turks but also is home to a rich religious heritage that predates the Muslim invasion of Bin Qasim. Peshawar was founded by Buddhists, and recently, I learned about the Buddhist presence in caves in Bela, Balochistan.
Hindu mandirs and pilgrimage sites are also present in Sindh, Balochistan, Sikh holy places in Punjab, and more Buddhist stupas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; let’s not forget the enigma of the Kalash in Chitral as well who claim to be the descendants of the soldiers of Alexander the Great. There are other places of interest like Lahore Fort and Old Bazaar, Makli, Thatta, Multan, Ranikot, Rohtas, Katraj Das temple, modern monuments and battlefields, and birth places too for saints and rulers. If we leave aside foreign tourists, the country has so many amazing places in each province that our entertainment and culture-starved population itself can spend years visiting them.
I’ve told this story before as many times as I possibly could; I discovered the existence of Swat as a hill station when the friend of an Indian father back in Bahrain included it in his places during a game. I and others were curious about this unknown place, and he confidently told everyone, “It’s a hill station in Pakistan and is very beautiful.” He was right because not only Swat, from the sea to the China border, Pakistan because of how it was formed with old fold mountains and new fold mountains is a treasure of amazing natural beauty. We have deserts and hills and lakes and rivers and plains and plateaus and alpine meadows and majestic peaks, some of the highest in the world, flora and fauna to go along with the heavenly experience.
For thrill-seekers, there are deadly serpentine roads and passes, hiking trails, and water rafting; for those craving peace and tranquility, there are options available, and for those looking for fun and to be amazed, no shortage of vistas and places to be experienced. It’s no wonder that I believe that Switzerland should be called the Pakistan of Europe because our nation is far from pristine and beautiful than the landlocked state.
There’s no doubt that Pakistan is an amazing place to visit but the challenge remains in how to get people to come over. In the past when PIA was at its zenith its advertising spoke a lot about Pakistan and our unfair advantage. Sadly, banking on the airline is not an option. The government initiatives that were done like the branding of double-decker buses in the UK, were in my view not effective enough. The tagline chosen, Emerging Pakistan also felt a bit flaccid. It’s too passive. It lacks a visual kick. Based on what I have written above, we are not an emerging nation in the deepest sense. More evocative taglines could be Pakistan, the land of hospitality, Pakistan’s crossroads of the world, or even Pakistan, gateway to Asia. The last suggestion associates our country with Asia and can reduce the negative image that has been created.
Coming, of course, to the negative image factor, I started this article off by saying that it’s a good thing. This statement definitely seems strange, but the simple logic is that if a prospect knows about a brand, you have to work less to educate them about it than if they did not know about the brand. They have a belief about it; in the case of Pakistan, we need to just shift the paradigm by altering the constructs of our country. How do we do this? The strategy is to expose people to our culture and also use the negative to create a positive. Creating a series of humorous ads that are actually informative will help break clutter and make an impact. One example could be Come to Pakistan and be blown away as the headline. The sub-headline could be by our culture and food.
Another that reframes information with existing positive information is “They wanted to film the Hobbit in Pakistan, but our mountains are too high.” Javed Jabbar used the historical angle in an epic ad in the 60s. The captivating headline was Guess who came sightseeing to Pakistan the other day? The picture showed a bust of the great historical figure, and below his image was his name, Alexander. A spin on this idea could be an ad with the headline Alexander loved Pakistan so much; his soldiers had to revolt to get him to leave.
So far, the growth in tourism is not a lot, but that is also a good thing as our country needs more infrastructure and we need to weigh the pros and cons as our scenic places are already suffering from a boom in local tourism that leaves trash and waste. One thing is for certain even before the invasion of international travel bloggers and influencers to our shores, Pakistan has been known as a heaven for those who love rugged terrain, breathtaking beauty, and heartwarming hospitality. The ingredients are all there for Pakistan to be the next hot tourist destination; all that remains is to prepare the dish and serve it to a welcoming and waiting world.