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COVID-19 and tourism industry of Pakistan: right time to ignite domestic tourism

The growing COVID-19 crisis threatens to disproportionately hit developing countries, not only as a health crisis in the short term but also as a devastating social, economic and political crisis. At present the bigger challenge for the world and for the developing countries is to keep economic wheel moving to ensure food security and wellbeing of the society during the various barriers of physical distancing and lock downs. With calls for social distancing, service sector jobs that depend on customer-provider interactions or involve the congregation of large numbers of people are likely to take a huge hit. Workers in industries such as restaurants, hotels, child care services, retail trade, transportation services, tourism and education are at a higher risk of losing their jobs but the measures taken to put in place to contain diffusion of pandemic are taking a heavy toll on the tourism sector. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the COVID-19 pandemic will result in a contraction of the tourism sector by 20 to 30 percent in 2020. This estimate is likely to be conservative for countries relying on foreign tourists, as the recent data on daily air traffic indicate a drop of almost 80 percent since January 2020.

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Tourism industry is facing deep disruptions due to the outbreak of COVID-19. According to a report fall in global international tourist arrivals will translate into a loss of US$30 to 50 billion. Pakistan’s tourism and transportation sectors are also affected poorly as public transportation including local and international flights closed, markets closed, public places closed, restaurants and hotels closed, as well as economic crisis is going on especially for poor, daily wagers, or who involved in low salary employments. In major cities, hotels are transformed into quarantine centers. Due to coronavirus pandemic, thousands of international tourists cancelled their reservations and bookings that have negative impact on tourism community even porters, tour guides, street vendors and all those who rely on tourist spending are suffering and affecting now. Hospitality Industry has borne significant losses due to the cancellation of hotel booking and drop in the number of travelers. The industry witnessed the loss of Rs one hundred million only in February 2020 due to decline visits of foreign tourists.

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At the turn of this decade, Pakistan saw the return of British Airways, previously red travel advisories turn green, visits from various dignitaries including the British royal couple, and press-authorities on tourism boast of Pakistan’s attractiveness for tourists. The rusting mechanism, once employed by tour operators, was being cleaned and readied for the season. Pakistan boasts beautiful mountains, pristine lakes and rivers, historically vibrant cities, and unparalleled tales. For years, the plague of terrorism had walled these wonders from the rest of the world, and the walls were beginning to crumble. Pakistan was ready to open itself up to the rest of the world. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) further catalyzed growth in the sector with the construction of much-needed motorways, and exclusive economic zones. YouTubers from different countries also provided a soft image bump, which proved to be a powerful form of marketing.

According to 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 and these sites support 8,665 direct jobs in tourism value chain and contribute $5 million to the local economy through tourism receipts and 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 but unexpected arrival of COVID-19 will ruin all plans and startups including home stays 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. Concerning Pakistan’s tourism as one of the most productive sector of the economy grabbed government attention due to its real potential. This sector contributes around 3% in the GDP. The disruption of the tourism industry will not only affect the traveling but also affect the transport, restaurants, handicrafts, and hotel industry. Generally, June-August is the peak season of the hoteling industry as most of the people travel in these months to the northern areas of Pakistan. Given the present situation, it is expected that the hospitality industry will face a severe decline in revenue generation due to the pandemic and suspended flight operations. 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 and 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. In order to boost this sector it is important to jump start through domestic tourism after the ease of lockdown. As we all know that due to COVID-19 airlines activities are banned by most of the countries and after covering all travel regularities and risk premiums cost of international tourism will rise.

But now, there is a need of collaboration of public and private sector, to support the industry cope with the aftereffects of COVID-19 while preparing it for the responsible tourism when travel restrictions are lifted by a clean environment will be at the minimum expected, whether that be airlines, cruise ships, coaches, restaurants, or hotels. This will become the new minimum global standard. Everyone in hospitality services will have to participate and up their game. There will be no exception to the rule, as this will be part and parcel of the increased comfort level demand by the guests. This will also include personal grooming of the staff, disinfection hygiene, and sanitization of all products, services, and venues. Standards companies will have to devise ratings and monitoring around this measure. There will be a lot of behind the scenes change of ownerships of hotel brands. Still, operational things will become much more efficient with hygiene and technology standards being applied even more diligently. The segment will sustain and survive. Develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the workers, firms, and travelers, Design and direct financial support towards the tourism value chains including the microenterprises, guide and support players including restaurants, hotels, homestays, and transporters to disinfect, upgrade facilities and train workers to adopt improved hygiene and safety practices, use technology to introduce virtual tours of museums, heritage sites and ski resorts as a substitute for actual visits and plan and enforce on-site measures for better waste collection, plastics recycling, and traffic management. The KP province is taking the lead in this situation by using the resources available through the IDA-financed KP Integrated Tourism Development (KITE) project to:

  1. immediately respond to the pandemic by providing medical equipment and supplies
  2. Support disinfection of the sites; and
  3. 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. We may also benefit from the relations of USA, Germany and many other countries with China. Now Chinese will search for new destinations like Malaysia and Pakistan but advance measures needed to prepare ourselves to take advantage from exploitation of tourism industry when the travel restrictions are relaxed and with multiple iterations of handling seasonal inbound tourists, there is bound to be an evolution of tourist-friendly policies and social impediments, availability of flights to the northern areas are often difficult to find during peak season with no alternatives. Perhaps it may be a good idea to follow in Nepal’s footsteps and incentivize private flight operators who can give aerial tours of the northern areas. Local small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) need to be empowered, complementary industries, like souvenirs, need to be spawned, hotels and resorts need to be constructed, and a compelling narrative needs to be unilaterally produced that projects the splendors of this country to the rest of the world. It is perhaps too soon to comment on how the next few months will unravel, but it is a matter of fact rather than speculation that the tourism industry in this country needs work to achieve its true potential. Pakistan is joining the race late, and it would be unwise to remain idle when given a chance to catch up to the rest of the world during this break of COVID-19.

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