Many years ago, before we were set upon by the scourge of terrorism, I was attending a professional conference in Islamabad along with participants from around the globe. I was happy to note that the overall ambience of the event showcased Pakistan, its culture and natural beauty. It was during a longish break in the proceedings that I invited some participants and drove them up the Margalla Hills for an informal meal at a popular restaurant overlooking the Federal Capital. As we savored the breathtaking view from the terrace, one of my guests spontaneously turned round and addressed me, “You have something here that is unbelievably beautiful. It is perhaps your country’s best kept secret”. I thanked my guest, but mourned inwardly for the apathy that prevented the concerned authorities from making tourist industry as one of our country’s prime revenue generating engines.

Thirty years later, Pakistan continues to be one of the world’s best tourist destinations, sans tourists. Our internal law and order situation and the resultant travel advisories have successfully accomplished what an economic embargo would have achieved had it been instituted by quarters bent on destroying the ‘Land of the Pure’. It was during a heated discussion on the subject just yesterday that a brilliant idea was tabled by one of my close friends – an idea that immediately caught our fancy. Since insecurity was plaguing Pakistan as a choice of destination, then why not exploit the situation and create a new international tourism category known as ‘Running the Gauntlet Tourism’, featuring adrenalin pumping trips full of survival risks, challenges and thrills.  

On a more sober note, the alternate segment of our tourism industry – domestic tourism is mercifully active, keeping infrastructures alive and ready to absorb international visitors as and when they start arriving in numbers. We are indeed fortunate that northern Pakistan offers irresistible attractions for both recreational and religious visitors with destinations that begin at the Salt Range and Potohar Plateau in the South and end on icebound Himalayan summits in the North. In between these reference points there lies a great swathe of territory replete withold temples, Buddhist monasteries, remains of long gone empires and civilizations, emerald valleys frilled with frothing white water, mountains and glaciers that daunt the stoutest of mountaineers and friendly people everywhere - ready to share their hearth and home with perfect strangers.

I was on a trip to Chitral, not so long ago, when the mystique and happy memories of a previous visit prompted me to head for the Land of the Kafirs. Passing through Ayun, we entered this beautiful country to find that we were not the only visitors here. Sitting around a bonfire that evening we were joined by a middle-aged French husband and wife, who unlike us, had trekked from Chitral City. We listened raptly as the couple talked of their experiences and marveled at their passion for getting to know Pakistan. Two days later, we again stopped at the spot on our return journey and to our delight found that our new found friends were still there. We offered to give them a lift, which was courteously refused on the grounds that they still had exploring to do. We sat by the fire chatting of this and that, oblivious of time, until we found that dawn was breaking and there was no more firewood to keep us warm. Our friends bid us ‘au revoir’ with the words, “It is unfortunate that you don’t realize what treasures you have – treasures which can make your country rich and your people prosperous”.

My return journey to Chitral and the flight home was undertaken in a pensive mood that prompted much comment from my colleagues. I had nothing to tell them except that the words of my French acquaintances kept ringing in my ears accompanied by a dream, when one day we would be proudly able to welcome hordes of visitors to ‘destination Pakistan’ without fear or concern.

The writer is a freelance columnist.