"...Tourism was never allowed to play its role in this region"
Agha Iqrar Haroon first joined the tourism sector as a tourist guide at the age of 15 and then worked as a journalist for Pakistan's leading English newspapers. He went on to study for a Masters in History, a Masters in Group Philosophy and a diploma in Documentary and News Production while continuing to work as a tourist guide. Haroon is a former Consultant at the Pakistan Ministry of Tourism and the founding President of Ecotourism Society Pakistan that was constituted in 1998. He has published a number of tourism research papers and has taught at the Institute of Tourism of the Punjab province, at the Pakistan Austrian Institute for Tourism and Hotel Management in Gulli Bagh Swat, and at the Beacon House University (BNU) in Lahore. Agha Iqrar Haroon is the Honorary Head of The Region Initiative (TRI) and is currently working as a Senior Documentary Producer for a leading television channel in Pakistan.
ECOCLUB.com: In a region and an era characterised by great turmoil and mistrust, last year you decided to launch an ambitious regional tourism initiative with the aim of supporting the UNWTO Silk Road Plan. Have you made any progress so far, and what are the main obstacles?
Agha Iqrar Haroon: My 32 years in tourism have taught me one important lesson: keep walking when the weather is bad because the more you will wait and stay, the more chances of land slides hitting your head or blocking the pass. I think we cannot wait for good times to come. We have to move and to move in the right direction. But I must appreciate my friends for their constant moral support including Mr. Palitha Gurusinghe of Sri Lanka Ecotourism Foundation, Mr. Ravshan of Silk Road Destinations from Uzbekistan and the former Minister for Tourism of Pakistan Mr. Mushahid Hussain Syed who pushed me whenever my logical thinking warned me to stop. We initiated The Region Initiative (TRI) in May 2010 and today it is present in 15 countries of South Asia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe (Armenia, Bangladesh, India, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Tajikistan, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Ukraine and Uzbekistan). It is a Tri-regional umbrella of Tourism-related organisations. TRI is functioning as a link between three regions as they are facing similar threats, challenges and opportunities in the field of tourism operations, planning and practices. Reconnecting the ancient Silk Route or Silk Road destinations as one tourism entity is one of the ultimate goals of TRI, therefore it supports the UNWTO Silk Road Plan/Programme. We strongly believe that a solid, operative and broad-based tourism market of Silk Road destinations is not possible only through the linkage of intergovernmental and states organisations. Therefore TRI takes the lead by connecting stakeholders including tour operators, Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs), tourism experts, academia and the youth. In the beginning we did not have a problem finding good partners but there was a difference of mindset and language while dealing with Central Asian republics where Russian had been an official language. However my background of Persian language helped me a lot and of course a little knowledge of Russian was an extra edge. But these impediments were tackled at the very beginning when we divided TRI leadership into Central Asia, South Asia and Eastern Europe so that the respective Head looks after and deals with these issues.
Now we are facing a problem of funding. Thus far respective partners are looking after their own expenses in the respective regions, while our last two meetings of Central Asia were sponsored by our Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan partners. Head office expenses are my responsibility. We need funding to maintain and manage such a huge network and for that matter we also requested UNWTO to involve us in tourism work and consultancies offered by UN organizations in the Silk Road Region. However the response was not very encouraging.
ECOCLUB.com: Does your network have any other main aims? Beyond peace-building, do you also see a scope for promoting human rights, social justice and environmental awareness through tourism or are such issues too complicated to address?
Agha Iqrar Haroon: Our networking is purely for promoting tourism and peace through tourism. Human rights and social justice are not in our terms of reference and parametres. There are countless organizations dealing with these issues but countable organizations are working for Tourism. I believe that social justice will ultimately prevail when there are less conflicts ranging from geographical to conceptual and from political to religious. Agonies of humans are growing multidimensional and one of the reasons or rather the core reason of such financial, political and social unrest is the lack of "oneness" and the absence of "interfaith harmony" from societies. Meeting each other, living together for some time helps to understand each other and Tourism has always been an important tool for such meetings. Tourism since long works as modality of bringing harmony among people and exposure of East to West historically became possible through travel along the Silk Road.
ECOCLUB.com: The last few years must have been very hard for Pakistan's Tourism, from earthquakes and floods, to political turmoil and wars, while tourists and tourist infrastructure have also been repeatedly targeted. Can you (and do you wish to) make a convincing case of why a tourist should visit Pakistan, and if so which areas are generally safe?
Agha Iqrar Haroon: You are right. The Pakistan Austrian Institute for Tourism and Hotel Management (PAITHOM) where I had been working as a Consultant was suddenly dwelled by terrorists not tourists in Swat. You can imagine my pain about this event because I was a founding member of this educational institute. Malam Jabba was burnt down totally where we used to hold our conferences. Why tourists should come to Pakistan is a hard question and I refrain from answering just telling you Pakistan has lot to offer. But I can tell you the problem is mainly in the Pushtun-dominated belt. The Kaghan Valley and all northern areas including Gilgit, Baltistan, Skardu and Hazara districts are very safe areas and domestic tourism is throbbing in these places. You cannot find a hotel room in Murree Hills or in Naran during the high season.
ECOCLUB.com: In the relative absence of tourism, what are the alternatives or necessary measures in your view so as to improve the situation for host communities dependent on tourism in mountain and rural areas?
Agha Iqrar Haroon: Value addition for crops particularly fruits and vegetables can play a big role in providing an alternative source of livelihood. Pakistan is a country of 170 million people and 90% of jams, juices (minus mango and oranges) and related items are produced from fruits coming from the mountain areas where tourism has collapsed. Unfortunately producers are taking raw materials at very cheap prices and produce these items in the big cities. If a cottage industry is promoted in these areas for production of such items, it can be a alternative means of financial support.
ECOCLUB.com: What type of Tourism can heal the wounds in the recently liberated Swat valley and is it appropriate for foreign aid agencies to get involved?
Foreign aid agencies particularly USAID are working in Swat and trying to heal wounds. We appreciate these agencies. However these agencies are mostly subcontracting work to companies that are mostly non-Swati (i.e. not from the Swat area) and a strong trust deficit is there. There are also reports alleging misapplication of funds and so on. Regarding your question what type of tourism should be introduced in Swat, I am of the view that tourism is a very sensitive industry. We must not over-promote tourism in the Swat Valley until and unless the valley returns to normal. Let me also mention that the USAID media campaign "Visit Swat" was launched well before time and it backfired. Huge advertisements were released in newspapers to excite readers to visit Swat in the month of August when the situation was still not under the control of forces. As late as September 21-23 of this year, a curfew was in place in Swat. How can you invite tourists in a curfew- clamped area? Is it not a senseless decision to over promote a destination which is yet not safe?
ECOCLUB.com: In academic papers one reads that in Pakistan there is a popular perception of international (mainly western) tourism as a cultural invasion and threat to local customs. Is this in your view due to the actual experience in popular resorts or is it due to strong cultural or political differences?
Agha Iqrar Haroon: You are right, if you read academic papers written after 1979 they rightly indicate that perceptions are negative for tourism in Pakistan. A purist form of Islam was promoted, imported and spread in Pakistan when the West needed Mujaheedin ('holy fighters') against the former Soviet Union. This purist form of Islam does not like tourism. Before 1977-1979, Pakistan was a hub of tourism activities, with the 'Hare Rama Hare Khrishna' trail starting from Europe and ending at Nepal through Iran, Pakistan and India. Thousands and thousands of backpackers used to travel through Pakistan and staying here for months. But those areas that were out of the direct influence of the Russian-Afghan War and the spread of the purist form of Islam are still as peaceful as they were including Kaghan Valley, Hunza, Gilgit and Skardu.
ECOCLUB.com: Even in some successful tourism destinations, the level of tourism education (both academic and vocational) is very low, sometimes non-existent. What is the case in Pakistan?
Agha Iqrar Haroon: I already mentioned earlier about the tourism school (PAITHOM) which was shut down. There are some good private sector initiatives but they are mostly producing Hotel management and hospitality students, training them to go abroad for jobs. Tourism training as such is almost non-existent.
ECOCLUB.com: The early 21st century thaw in India-Pakistani relations, including tourism connections and the thought of visa-free travel, seems to have frozen again. Does this perhaps prove that Tourism cannot constitute a critical mass for improving bilateral relations? How easy is it today for the people of the two countries to obtain a visa to visit each other, and is there enough interest to do so?
Agha Iqrar Haroon: Tourism has no artillery or infantry forces. It is very fragile. Tourism does not fail to play its role however tourism was never allowed to play its role in this region. Confidence-building measures between Pakistan and India are always an eyewash by both countries to satisfy international forums. Visa is a very serious problem and if you ever get it, it is impossible for you to travel all over India or Pakistan with one Visa. Visa is granted for respective cities. Actually this is not a Country Visa, I call it a City Visa system. You have to justify why you are visiting Kolkata if you mentioned in your papers that you are traveling to see Delhi and so on.
ECOCLUB.com: The Internet has been a great help for international grassroots initiatives and there is a lot of networking going on through the so-called Web 2.0. But do you feel sometime that is a lot more noise online and it is harder and harder to be heard? And what about mass international media?
Agha Iqrar Haroon: I am sorry to say that Social Media tools are spreading non-serious information. Today you find tons of information about a destination but only a dozen are accurate and the rest is written without even visiting that country. In such a situation professional tourism newspapers, magazines and radio channels are at their death bed. Cut and Paste theory is ruling over professional tourism presentations. This is all I can say about the Internet invasion. In Internet relations and contact, Thomas is using the email id of Angelina and you never know if this tour inquiry you receive comes from Colorado or Portugal unless you are an IT expert. In this online noise, serious, honest and professional companies are disappearing.
In relation to mass international media, let me tell you that it is not responsibility of media to help Tourism. Good news is not news, bad news is big news. So media always runs after bad news. If you ask how travel media can help tourism in this region, I am of the view that spreading information about destinations are the best thing travel media can do. TRI asks media to promote destinations of South Asia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe instead of promoting TRI or its leadership. If you visit our site, you will not find information on the main page or any direct page about the leadership of TRI, because we believe in promoting partners, countries and products.
ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much!
Agha Iqrar Haroon: I would also like to thank ECOCLUB.com for providing a serious and trustworthy platform for sincere and serious people.