Because what do overseas Pakistanis know about promoting tourism in Pakistan, right?
Recently, I found myself posing for a big fat family photograph at a wedding in Lahore, during which I was duly handed one of those decorative desi prop-style labels to pose with. Instead of the usual titles like ‘Larki walay’ (bride’s family and friends) and ‘Larkay walay’ (groom’s family and friends), can you guess which label I was handed? ‘Bahar walay’ (outsiders).
As a child of the Pakistani diaspora residing in the United Kingdom, my life has been divided neatly between Birmingham and Lahore, but neither of these two worlds accept me. However connected I may be, there has always been a sense of displacement and otherness.
While visiting Pakistan, the Pakistani diaspora community continues to be ‘out of place’. Although there is a strong sense of belonging because of frequent travelling, we are often quoted higher prices than locals in the bazaars because apparently we are instantly recognised as ‘outsiders’ simply by our movements and choice of apparel. Our visits involve us straddling the line between Pakistan’s traditions and the modernity of the society in which we have been raised. As a result, we explore Pakistan purely as tourists and often experience a culture shock.
While family interactions might be the central reason for most visits, often these trips also serve as a means through which overseas Pakistanis can engage with their heritage, customs and festivals. Even then, the family related visits involve a transference of funds, as well as valuables and social and economic remittances which could significantly further local development.
While the Pakistan Tourism Summit 2019 drew a dividing line between foreign and local tourists, it neglected a group of precious and regular travellers who occupy an in-between state – the overseas Pakistanis.
Imagine if the panel at the summit had included an international Pakistani who was as famous as the foreign influencers and had come to Pakistan in an attempt to connect with their roots. Rather than only wanting to explore a particular destination, tourism for this kind of visitor is the result of a deeper longing to understand Pakistan.
Yet, it appears that Pakistan’s Tourism Summit does not want to listen to a Pakistani living abroad who promotes tourism. Is it because we have the same skin colour as the locals? But surely no one is as influential as a person who looks and talks like the locals, comes from their culture, yet is born and/or raised in the same world as the foreign travellers. We are the crucial first movers who occupy a unique space between both worlds. Surely we can use our position to help develop and facilitate new avenues for tourism in Pakistan.
With the ability to act as influencers, we can not only test the waters and spread the word about potential tourist destinations, we can also invest directly in constructing new tourist facilities and even help to bring existing ones up to international standards.
Although we may have a better understanding of potential safety and security threats than foreign tourists, we are still as vulnerable to the threats posed by political conflict, poor infrastructure and unreliable transport facilities. Tourism cannot flourish in Pakistan until these problems are addressed. Above all, the development of tourism in Pakistan is largely dependent on the degree to which the locals are involved in the process. Overseas Pakistanis are more likely to have the interest, linguistic skills, as well as the awareness to engage with, and help foster, local contacts. It is, however, quite common for us to be treated differently in Pakistan as compared to the people who are perceived as being ‘real tourists,’ as noted by travel blogger Alex Reynolds.
Diaspora tourism cannot and should not be separated from other forms of tourism. It forms a major component and is an important source of earning since we often prefer purchasing goods produced in Pakistan in order to help support our local artisans.
Pakistanis living abroad realise that they are representatives of their nation, and the way they present their country could colour the manner in which the West perceives Pakistan. An engagement with the language, customs, art and etiquettes of Pakistan gives us the opportunity to pave the pathway between Pakistan and the West. Thus, we have been shaping the image of Pakistan in our own capacity. It must be remembered that during the times when the country was facing an image problem across the globe, it was the Pakistanis abroad who had to deal with abusive comments and racists remarks on a daily basis.
Approximately 7.6 million Pakistanis live abroad and have the spending power of $20 billion, but unfortunately, the Pakistani government does very little to take advantage of the Pakistani diaspora to help promote tourism. However, when it is a matter of donating funds, then the overseas Pakistanis become the “most valuable assets” in the world. Overseas Pakistanis are often temporarily embraced only as a means of investment, whereas we are the ones who have protected and transferred narratives about our homeland, long before a handful of foreigners discovered the beauty of Pakistan.
The three kinds of tourists that travel across Pakistan are: the unknowing foreigner, the local expert, and the somewhat knowledgeable overseas Pakistani. I believe that the last one could be used to help bolster Pakistan’s nascent tourism industry. Ultimately, it all depends on whether the government tries to approach and incorporate this community into their tourism plans. As Canadian-Pakistani actress Armeena Rana Khan perfectly puts it,
“If you can’t value your own then others will be more than happy to have them.”
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.