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Speech for Annual Convention of Tourism New Delhi

Speech for Annual Convention of the Adventure Tour Operators Association of India
Titled ‘Adventure Tourism – poised for take off’ 16-17 December 2004, New Delhi, India

Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen! It is a great honor and privilege for me and my team members to have an opportunity to address an audience of such high esteem – each of you who has taken the necessary time out from your operations to further develop this great cause of ‘adventure tourism’ ~ which, unfortunately, has been placed on the backburner in South Asian regions for centuries, despite the tremendous potential it represents for the tourism industry and collective economies of South Asia in general.

First of all, I would like to congratulate the Adventure Tour Operators Association of India for organizing such a magnificent event and providing us this unique opportunity of coming together to share ideas and pertinent information for the common objectives of promoting the sustainable development and growth of adventure tourism in South Asia and its neighboring countries. This development and growth plays an important role, as we all know, in transforming the living conditions of hundreds of thousands of tour operators and workers associated in this field, particularly in the impoverished regions of Himalaya and Karakoram.

I have travelled all the way from Northern Pakistan, not so much to highlight our differences, but more importantly, to share our commonalities and a collective vision of further developing this emerging field of adventure tourism, especially in a sub-continent partnership context. I firmly believe that this and other such conferences go a long way towards improving bilateral ties and good relations, and will do much in bringing all of us who share common interests and a common border as neighbors in this great region of the sub-continent.

Despite having enormous potential to become a sustainable and income generating sector, tourism and related fields have, unfortunately, not received the appropriate attention and dedicated resources in South Asia and neighboring regions, which it so richly deserves. International visitors continue to seek out adventure destinations yet in doing so, expect a certain standard of facilities, communications infrastructure and hospitality, that is to say, convenience, comfort and a sense of welcome. The 9/11 scenario adversely impacted tourism all over the globe, but acutely so in my country, Pakistan. In my view, worldwide tourism remained one of the most adversely hit sectors in the wake of 9/11 disaster and South Asian and its neighboring regions were perhaps one of the hardest hit areas.

On the positive side, however, a record number of foreign mountaineers and trekkers visited the Northern Areas of Pakistan this past season. This was heralded as a tourism revival of sorts, in the aftermath of 9/11 and Iraq tensions, and coincided with the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the first ascent of our famous 8611m high K-2 (locally named as Chogori) and 51st anniversary of climbing Nanga Parbat during 2004. During these celebrations, Mr. Lino Lacedelli of Italy, the first successful climber of K-2 in 1954, as well as the wife of Mr. Hermann Buhl, who first climbed Nanga Parbat in 1953, were among the prominent guests to these celebrations. Interestingly, Mr. Lacedelli revisited K-2 base-camp this summer at the age of around 79 to commemorate his historic summit.

As an aside, I would like to cite a comment given by Dr. Peter La Graauw, an eminent international consultant on flora, during his recent visit. He noted recently that while he has had the privilege of visiting more than 50 countries worldwide, none were as striking as his travels to the Deosai Plateau in the Northern Pakistan. He was so taken with this amazing plain, situated about 40 km south of Skardu, that he commented that had he not been privy to visit such beauty, he would have felt out of favour with God for not granting him such an honour during his time on earth.

I would also like to take this opportunity to share some interesting statistics about tourism in Pakistan with you, my fellow tour operators and delegates. Despite the tourism recession these past three years, in the aftermath of 9/11, during the last three years (2001, 2002, 2003) our average annual international inbound visitors was 502,266 and average tourism receipts were 111 million US$. Similarly, we received an average of 39 million domestic tourists in the same period. The average tourism receipts as a percentage of GNP remained at 8%. 160 mountaineering expedition parties visited Pakistan and they paid royalty of 984,000 US$. In addition, a total of 394 trekking parties visited during the last three years and paid 92,050 US$ ins trekking fees. The Ministry of Tourism reduced the royalty fee by 50% to mark the 50th anniversary of climbing Nanga Parbat in 2003. This concession continued in 2004 in order to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1954 K-2 climb. It is evident from these figures that adventure tourism continues to hold its own, despite political and economic challenges.

To that extent, we are also very excited that we now have a mountaineering guide school recently set up in Northern Pakistan under the financial support of Flux Foundation, Spain and in collaboration with the Government of Pakistan, in order to further develop our mountaineering sector. This school has the capacity to impart modular training to local youths to become professional guides and climbers. The authorities are considering only allowing qualified, trained and certified guides to work with foreign adventure tourists, which I think is a remarkable move.

In addition to the adventure sector, Pakistan also has enormous potential for cultural tourism in the shape of a centuries-old heritage and rich historical landscape, which boasts incredible monuments from the Mughal era, Indus Valley and Gandhara civilizations, not to mention the Kalash valley and landmark forts and rock-carvings in Northern Pakistan. Like India, we pride ourselves for our warm hospitable nature ~ greeting and welcome foreign tourists, as we do, as invaluable guests to be edu-tained (educated and entertained) on tour – such as in religious tours and pilgrimages which pay homage to Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh churches, temples, stuppas and Gurdwaras, wherever they exist. Unfortunately, some western and other vested-interest groups have wrongfully projected Pakistan as less than hospitable, which, for those of you who have traveled and spent time in our great nation, could not be further from the truth. The Pakistani people, like other civilized people across the globe, are inherently peace loving, friendly, responsible and moderate citizens known for their warm, genuine hospitality. While isolated events in the wake of ideological clashes have existed, they remain the remote exception rather than the general rule.

Pakistan is, first and foremost, a country of great geographical variation, cultural diversity, and important archaeological heritage. We are strategically placed at the crossroads of Asia – at the confluence of the roads from China to Mediterranean as well as other important routes from India to Central Asia. That said, we are an important gateway to China and Central Asian States via the Karakoram Highway – the famous Silk Route and the eighth wonder of the world – which threads its way through the Himalaya, Karakoram, and Pamir mountains and enters China over the 4733-meter high Khunjrab Pass, providing a remarkable trading and tourism opportunities. Our Northern Areas are home to five out of the fourteen above 8000-meter high peaks in the world. The North nurtures an unspoiled beauty with its gigantic mountain ranges, mighty glaciers, vast meadows, and magnificent trekking routes. The South has the bustling mega city of Karachi, the ruins of Moenjodaro, home to the 4000-years-old Indus civilization, and the unexplored coastal areas of Makran, with sandy beaches and crystal clear water. The eastern and central parts of the country consist of the historic cities of Lahore and Taxila. In addition to that, the mighty Indus River also called the lion river, flows into Pakistan and provides amazing opportunities for canoeing, kayaking, and related water sports. Similarly, the Thar and Cholistan deserts provide an unparalleled opportunity for camel safaris and related desert explorations.

If this sounds suspiciously like a tourism pitch, it’s because it is! If you have not visited Pakistan – or it has been a long while since you have experienced our diverse charms, I urge you to do so soon. Similarly, if you have not previously considered offering a cross-border tour as part of your adventure product and tour programs, now is the time and I welcome the opportunity to discuss ways we can work closer together to promote the many, great tourism offerings we are all blessed with here in the Indian subcontinent.

In short, ladies and gentlemen, like India, Pakistan is a tourism friendly destination and while we are very much open for business, we are also aware of our environmental frailties. We are home to one of the oldest and greatest ancient civilizations the world has ever seen and can boast some of the most beautiful and diverse natural landscapes anywhere. With such a vast array of spectacular tourism sites, six of which are UNESCO world heritage sites, we have much to offer the cultural, historical, archaeological, religious and eco-tourist alike. With three incredible glacier-rich mountain ranges converging together – namely, the Karakoram, Himalayas and Hindu Kush, it is understandable that our mountains and stunning glaciers continue to attract discerning trekkers and climbers the world over. We are proud have such lofty glaciers in our midst – such as the Baltoro, Siachen, Hispar, Mashabrum, and Gondogoro in Baltistan; Passu and Batura in Hunza, and the Tirich Mir and Udrin glaciers in the Hindukush range near Chitral. Having said that, however, I would like to share a considerable public concern with you that the Siachen and many other glaciers are being polluted in the advent of continuous military presence from both sides, these past two decades. These glaciers are the only source of clean drinking water to millions. I encourage, through this forum, that special attention be paid to these natural resources, in order to preserve and protect their natural beauty.

My fellow industry counterparts, as you know, the American, European, Japanese, Australians and other related visitors are the key markets for adventure and cultural tourism in South Asia. In order to attract more international tourists to South Asia, our respective authorities need to undertake the development of better communication infrastructures, resolve the border situations, and above all, mitigate the political uncertainty prevailing upon making inbound adventure travel pleasant and unforgettable. The heads of our respective countries need to know that peace and normalcy is the only way out to boost adventure tourism and thus, improve living conditions of the poorest of the poor masses, particularly in the mountainous regions of Pakistan, India, China, and Nepal. We all know foreign tourists come to these places to connect with nature and experience serenity and peace, as an escape from daily lives and home city environments that are typically hectic, congested and polluted.

Policies that embrace our collective tourism strengths and regional geography identity as one international destination help create and strengthen bilateral friendships, generate economic activities, and above all, serve to create a favourable impression of the respective hosting peoples. That said, we need to collectively work together to position South Asia as the adventure destination of choice amongst international travelers and we need to begin to capitalize on whatever media and popular culture opportunities avail. We can achieve this in relatively small and simple ways. For example, if we think for a moment of what the film Lord of the Rings has done for New Zealand tourism or even contemporary TV shows such as Survivor or The Amazing Race, a show which has contestants skirting the globe from Canada to the South Pacific to Dubai and even Calcutta – we see tourism demand from the west in search of new adventures, travel experiences and so-called exotic destinations increase. We need to work in concert to attract such film productions as well as to co-host international tour wholesalers and travel media in an tourism exchange and extended familiarization visit format.

Therefore, as we approach the 60th anniversary of partition, I urge the countries of both Pakistan and India, and our other regional neighbors, to come together as friends, with the express interest of, firstly, enhancing and improving conditions for personal and business relationships between peoples of both countries and secondly, opening all borders in order for group tour and FIT visitors as well as VFR tourists (the visiting friends and relatives segement) who are living and traveling astride, particularily in the northern region of Pakistan. Taking this opportunity, I earnestly urge the heads of both countries to open up Skardu-Kargil/Serinagar and Khaplu-Nubra roads, as with others, which will not only enable thousands of blood relations to meet after a half century but will also contribute positively towards economic and social integration of the masses living in these mountainous regions. This is a goodwill gesture that will do much to enhance the ongoing dialogues for Muzaffarabad-Srinagar, and Khokhrapar-Monabao road links. Baltistan, Ladakh, and Nepal share a number of cultural values and features including the unique Tibetan dialect. If roads are opened up for these historical landscapes, this will have an enormous impact on the socio-cultural and economical integration between these mountainous regions.

On that note, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to end here with a warm goodbye and best wishes to all my fellow tour operators and friends gathered around here under the auspices of ATOAI. I would be remiss if I did not recognize and appreciate the Indian High Commission in Islamabad for their assistance in granting us timely visas to make this trip a successful-one.

Thank you for your time and attention and I look forward to the opportunity to chat with each of you individually during our brief time here.

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