It was while on a trip to Amsterdam some years ago that I entered a florist’s shop run by a middle aged couple. Perhaps our mutual love of growing things prompted the lady to ask me where I came from. My reply that I was from Pakistan, drew a blank response. The second question perturbed me to no end, “Where is this Pakistan?” I looked around the shop searching for something resembling a map and finding none asked the couple for a pencil and paper. I painstakingly drew Europe and Asia as best as I could and introduced them to the land of my birth. Not satisfied with the results I said that they should plan a vacation and visit me as my guests. They looked at one another and nodded - I have yet to host my friends so that I can introduce them to the ‘best kept secret of the world’ and its wonderful sights. On returning home I narrated my story to someone high up in the tourism business. He invited me to take a virtual journey through our official tourism websites. I emerged from the trip in a not too happy mood.

I would perhaps have forgotten about the whole thing had I not seen some colorful hoardings on Jinnah Avenue, showcasing our beautiful country and later picked up some brochures printed by those who run our official tourist trade. It was then that I resolved to write this piece, in the hope that someone (for that matter anyone) with the power to change things, imbibes it and does something to ensure that our image making is done creatively and sensibly.

The maladies that afflict our image makers are multifold. First they have no idea of how to manage perceptions. Their output is fettered by old fashioned concepts and the fear of bureaucratic reprisals if they produce something ‘unconventionally creative’. They are bound by norms, built upon and fed by sycophancy and status quo – the two things that kill even the beginnings of creative thought.

It is thus that our billboards, brochures, documentaries and websites show tombs, ruins and bullock driven ploughs (to name a few) instead of panoramic landscapes, shopping malls, places of entertainment, hotels and restaurants. This indicates a lack of understanding with reference to tourist psychology. While our domestic tourist is acclimatized to our culture and way of life, it is the foreign tourist that needs to be drawn. This will happen only if we show Pakistan as a safe, modern and hospitable destination, with much to see and explore.

Nature has equipped us with an unprecedented color palette and tourism possibilities. We have some of the highest and the most challenging mountain peaks in the world, beautiful alpine valleys with watercourses ideally suited for white water rafting. We have lakes that could be developed into water sport resorts and hill features for paragliding. We have deserts that could become venues for international car rallies and desert tourism. And then we have beaches and coves for scuba diving and sailing enthusiasts. In addition, our historic connection with Buddhism can be exploited imaginatively to attract a large section of people from that faith. In all, we are blessed with limitless possibilities of Adventure and Religious Tourism that has fallen victim to a poor security situation, corruption, lack of professionalism and dynamism. With the first of these factors showing a marked improvement, we must begin taking a fresh and unbiased look at what needs to be done so that we can take a big bite from the International Tourism Pie. While doing so, we must understand that nature’s bounties alone will have to be augmented by on ground facilities for both foreign and domestic visitors. These facilities must include security, means of getting ‘there’, comfortable accommodation and good food. Last but not the least we must recruit ‘tourism diplomats’ - guides, who leave a positive lasting impression through multilinguistic skills, extensive local knowledge and pleasant personality. If honestly implemented, these measures are more than likely to reap rich benefits for our individual and collective economy.