20 July 2019
File picture of refugees from a military offensive against Pakistani militants in North Waziristan in 2014. Many Pakistanis decry the portrayal of their country in Western media as a dangerous place. Photo: Reuters
File picture of refugees from a military offensive against Pakistani militants in North Waziristan in 2014. Many Pakistanis decry the portrayal of their country in Western media as a dangerous place. Photo: Reuters

How dangerous is it really to travel to Pakistan?

Pakistan has often been ranked among the world’s most dangerous countries. Most governments, including China which considers Pakistan a close ally, have issued travel warnings for the country.

These high-profile travel advisories have obviously scared off a lot of foreign tourists. And so, despite its numerous world heritage sites and breathtaking landscapes, Pakistan is lagging far behind its neighbors such as India, Nepal and Bhutan in the development of the local tourism industry.

Some Pakistani friends of mine are highly indignant at their country’s infamous reputation for being a dangerous country, a label which, they believe, has been imposed on them by western media in order to demonize their country.

Many Pakistanis cite the rampant gun violence in the United States as an example to support their argument, noting that there are probably more people losing their lives in mass shootings across America than those getting killed in terrorist attacks in Pakistan every year.

What is unfair about the situation, they say, is that no country has ever issued a travel warning for the US.

In the eyes of the average Pakistani, the white supremacy groups in the US are just as ideologically radical as the Taliban, not to mention that the Harlem district in the New York City some 10 years ago was just as dangerous as today’s Peshawar from their point of view.

They believe the hostile western propaganda against Pakistan is politically motivated, and intended to undermine their country’s economic growth so that Islamabad would be always in a position of weakness when dealing with the West.

They go on to argue that while terrorist threats in Pakistan have been pretty much exaggerated, news about terrorist attacks in major powers like the US, Britain, France, Russia and China is often outweighed by considerations of their economic might and huge market potential.

And that, they say, explains why terrorist strikes that occur frequently in these countries have not undermined the “structural confidence” of international investors and tourists.

The Pakistanis’ opinion about the hostile agenda of western media against them could be biased, but they might also have a point there.

In fact, I think countries like Pakistan that are suffering from poor international image might find some useful insights from Colombia, which was once notorious for street and gang violence but was able to give itself a facelift and transform into a global tourist hotspot.

Just two decades ago, Colombia was almost a byword for danger. In particular, the city of Medellin was like a dark world dominated by local drug cartels.

However, through determined efforts by the Colombian government over the years, Medellin has been transformed into a global hub for holidaymakers from around the world and a well-known market for high-end consumers.

As far as Pakistan is concerned, it might be very difficult for the country to duplicate the success of Colombia in the short run.

That said, perhaps the Pakistanis can follow in the footsteps of Saudi Arabia and set up special economic zones (SEZs) on its soil as a shortcut to improving its international image and creating a new economic growth engine.

As we all know, Saudi Arabia is among the most conservative Islamic countries in the world, not to mention that it has remained a major source of Islamic fundamentalism over the years.

The Saudi leaders were apparently well aware that it would be difficult for their country to change the way the rest of the world sees them in the short run, hence their plan to set up SEZs to do business and attract tourists.

Their efforts have obviously paid off. While the Saudis didn’t have to start from scratch, the SEZs they set up don’t have to follow their rigid laws like the rest of the country does, and can therefore enjoy a lot more flexibility.

Besides, most of the foreign exchange revenues generated from these SEZs would end up in the pockets of the Saudi government, thereby achieving a win-win.

The Gwadar Port was once intended by Islamabad as a model SEZ.

Unfortunately, investment initiatives by the Pakistani government in the project have lost momentum, and the influx of Chinese capital has given rise to some other unexpected issues. As a result, the port project has underperformed.

Despite all these issues, however, I believe the Pakistani government has definitely taken a step in the right direction by establishing its own SEZs.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 14

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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