My name is M Bilal Hassan and I live in Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan. While I am a practicing medical doctor by profession, I also work as a travel writer and tour guide. The latter jobs all happened accidentally. I didn’t plan to be a part of Pakistan tourism.
Stumbling Into Pakistan Tourism
I started writing about Pakistan tourism out of sheer frustration as to how Pakistan was portrayed in the media. I am not saying what was shown in the media wasn’t true. I am just saying that all that was shown was just one small part of a much larger picture. I wanted to give the outside world a peek into what day-to-day life was like in my country. I wanted to show that Pakistanis also love, laugh, cry and go out to the movies like regular folks around the world. So I started writing and photographing and sharing it with the world.
I was inspired to travel for the very reason that inspired me to write and photograph. I wanted to open my mind and the minds of the people around me from other countries. I look forward to opportunities when I meet fellow travelers who tell me that I am the first Pakistani they’ve met. It gives me the opportunity to tell them about my country and also address the misconceptions they may have of it.
So Let Me Tell You About Pakistan And Where To Go
Pakistanis are very hospitable people. You can travel from one end of the country to the other without spending a dime because everyone you meet along the way will want to host you. We take our guests very seriously. Their comfort and happiness are taken upon us like a serious responsibility.
There’s so much to see and do in Pakistan. Pakistan tourism is best from October to March because that’s when the weather all over the country is pleasant. If you’re into exploring old hidden gems and great architecture, then you should definitely visit Pakistan’s second largest city and cultural capital, Lahore. The city is packed with relics from the Mughal era; from beautiful red brick mosques to atmospheric Sufi shrines, the city has it all.
On the other hand, if you’re an outdoorsy person, Pakistan tourism also caters to extreme sports. Pack up your trekking gear and head up to Gilgit- Baltistan. The territory is home to some of the highest mountains in the world. K2, the second tallest peak in the world, is located in the same region.
Lastly, if you’re a foodie and into big city life, then you should definitely make a trip to the southern port city of Karachi. It’s the largest and most cosmopolitan city in Pakistan. People from all over the country come to the city to find work, which makes Karachi very active and diverse in food culture. From Karachi Biryani to Lamb Sajji from Balochistan to Afghani Pulao; all four corners of the country are represented in the wining and dining scene of the city. It’s a 24/7 hive of mad energy.
Pakistan Tourism And Current Issues
Although Pakistan is packed with things to do and see, the tourism industry in Pakistan is still in its infancy to getting back on track. Pakistan tourism rose from the 1970s to the early 2000s. Pakistan was a popular tourist hotspot because it served as a link between India and Central Asia. It was especially popular amongst adventurers and thrill seekers. The country was famed as being a stop off point on the hippie trail between Istanbul and Bangkok.
However, after this golden period of tourism, the country slipped into a never-ending cycle of political and sectarian turmoil that lasted for well over a decade. For some background, these were post 9/11 years in Pakistan. The War on Terror had just been launched by the United States and its allies in neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistan shares a long and porous border with its neighbor to the West. Hence, there was a massive spillover of the violence and chaos from next door. Adding to all this, Pakistan was also transitioning from a military dictatorship to a democracy around that time. Anarchy would be a subtle term to describe the situation of the country back then. Almost 70,000 people lost their lives to senseless violence. Needless to say, because of all these factors, the number of tourists coming to the country plummeted and came to a dramatic standstill. It wasn’t until 2017 after the military launched a large number of operations against all sorts of violent groups that things started to slowly normalize and hence a semblance of calm finally returned back to the country. Since then, the tourist numbers also started to steadily rise again.
The recent government is very keen on attracting tourists. Just recently they liberalized the country’s visa policy offering on arrival and electronic visa facilities to a large number of states. But a few days ago, the Pakistani government organized a tourist summit in Islamabad, the nation’s capital. However, the organizers decided to only invite foreign social media influencers, while sidelining the local creative community. Let me explain how that’s wrong.
Pakistan has a long and complicated relationship with colonialism. Even 70 odd years after independence from British colonial rule, the country still hasn’t gotten over its colonial hangover. The country is home to 210 million people so it’s a fairly diverse society. People come in all shades and hues, from the coastal Makrani people who can trace their heritage all the way back to East Africa to the Pashtuns of the North that share a common gene pool with Alexander the Great. But if you were to see the representation of people in film, fashion and television a large majority of the people in the aforementioned industries are light skinned. Skin whitening and bleaching creams are still very popular in this part of the world. Even to this day, a large segment of Pakistani society holds on to the view that the words of White people hold more validation than what a local says. These ideals have been nailed deep into our subconsciousness. Which brings me back to the Pakistan tourism event.
Creating an event about Pakistan tourism without engaging the local creators who know the country best and instead only feature foreign influencers further reiterates and reinforces those views. In addition, how can you expect to develop the local tourism industry without empowering and engaging with the local population? It is absurd to see how people from abroad can validate your country to you when you can’t do it on the same scale as them in your own country. Do you see how problematic that is? Needless to say, there was a social media uproar.
Traveling While Pakistani
Coming down to traveling around the world on a Pakistani passport–to be completely honest– can be a royal pain in the ass. With the amount of documentation required, it feels like I am applying for a housing loan rather than a simple tourist visa. Adding to that, I have a very obvious Muslim full name: Mohammed Bilal Hassan. So that too can bring its fair share of unwanted attention and travel inconveniences from ignorant fellow travelers and immigration officers. Immigration at airports, especially in the West, can be a trying task and a true test of patience. You get used to getting called out of line or being sent to secondary security screening because of the way you look, your name, or the country you come from. These experiences are dehumanizing, especially when you notice that the fellow travelers in the line are looking at you with curiosity while you’re being pulled out like you’ve done something wrong.
But none of this has deterred me from traveling; if anything it has motivated me to travel more and even further so that more people around the world get used to the idea of a Pakistani world traveler.
For me the entire experience of traveling is exhilarating. Nothing beats the feeling of landing into a new country where you know no one and don’t speak the language. It is the true test of stepping out of your comfort zone.
Before traveling, I try not to have any preconceived notions about the place or its people. However, people I’ve met along the way do have strong preconceived notions on Pakistan. The majority of them aren’t positive. From being violent extremists to skewed unipolar views on Muslims in general, I’ve come across them all. A lot of people tend to have the view that all Muslims are supposed to look or behave a certain way. Kind of like a caricature of what’s been shown to them for years in the media. But I don’t mind people being honest either. I appreciate them airing out these views in public because it then gives me a chance to also be frank and address each of their grievances properly.
For example, once in an Uber in Florida, the driver–very frankly in the middle of our heated conversation on Middle East politics– interrupted me and said, “You know what. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I am really, really scared of you guys.” I asked him what did he mean by “you” guys? He said, “You Muslims.” So I replied, “You know what? In today’s America, I am actually scared of White people, specifically White men, more specifically right now, you. I am scared of the number of guns in this country. I am scared that anyone could shoot me anywhere at any time under the pretense of being mentally deranged. And I am scared that I am a person of color in the current political climate. Every time I go out into a public space I am hyper-vigilant. I always make sure I know where the exits are, God forbid something goes wrong.” After a long silent pause, he apologized to me and said he really didn’t think of the situation that way. Obviously, there’s fear on all sides and we need to address it and have more open dialogue and conversations like these so that we can broaden our horizons. We can’t remain silent and apathetic.
One fun thing I like to indulge in while traveling is to at least once dine out at a local Desi restaurant. Desi’s are a subclass of Asians hailing specifically from the Indian Subcontinent; that includes places like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Afghanistan. Collectively we almost number around 2 billion people. Hence us also having huge, close-knit communities all over the world. I have yet to travel to a destination where I have not met or come across a Desi person.
Come To Pakistan. Pakistan Tourism Awaits You.
To future travelers coming to Pakistan, I encourage you all to come and visit now. The secret has already gotten out. Just scroll down Instagram and you’ll know what I am talking about. Pakistanis really appreciate well-read travelers. It doesn’t matter if your narrative is completely different from ours. Like I said earlier, it gives us a chance to talk about our side also. We really appreciate it if travelers ask questions. Ask as many as you want and we’ll be more than happy to answer each and every one of them in intricate detail.
I guess I’ve said enough about Pakistan now. It’s about time you all book your ticket to the country to come and see it for yourself.
Khush Aamdeed!!! (Welcome in Urdu)
About the Author
M Bilal Hassan is a doctor by profession who loves travelling to obscure and off the beaten track locations around the world in his spare time. He enjoys writing about art, travel and geopolitics. He currently resides in Karachi – Pakistan where he gives tours if he’s not busy. He can be reached by email : firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on the social media buttons below: