Our land is absolutely magnificent, picturesque and breathtakingly beautiful. From busy cities to lush green mountains and deep sea views, Pakistan has something for all kinds of tourists and travellers. It is home to busy, adventurous, and fast-moving metropolitan cities like Karachi and Lahore, a little further in the south, you get to see smaller but culturally rich towns of Sindh and Punjab including Hala, Khairpur, Bahawalpur, Multan and when entering north, luscious green hills and mountain peaks welcome you. If you are looking for a place that offers a healthy balance of citylife and nature, surrounded by mountains, with delicious food, you can visit Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Swat (Malakand Division), and even Alpuri (Shangla District), to name a few. Further to the north, Gilgit and Skardu are an adventure enthusiast’s paradise and for someone who wants an escape to the mountains. Balochistan is for all those who dare to go the extra mile.
Pakistan offers a multitude of travelling and tourism experiences. Before COVID-19, Pakistan was visited by many international content creators, travel bloggers and even professional country hoppers. During my visit to Islamabad in 2019, I shared a hostel room with an Australian traveller who had travelled to Pakistan by road. Her main motivation for visiting Pakistan was the abundance of unchartered destinations it has to offer; surprisingly, both of us were returning from Karimabad, Hunza, even though we did not meet there. Islamabad was our mini break! For me, it was a break before I returned to my hometown Karachi, for her, it was a break before she travelled further to the southern parts of Pakistan.
In our conversation, we exchanged thoughts, experiences and how it is like for us, single women, to travel solo in Pakistan. There I was, chatting with a solo female traveller about the safety for female tourism in Pakistan. An international tourist and I, a local one, had many similar yet different stories to share.
At the same time, we also heard from other travel professionals about the safety and accessibility of touring in Pakistan. My experience was a little different from theres! What we were sure of was that Pakistan is indeed a welcoming, hospitable and beautiful country with more potential than has materialized.
When it comes to travelling in Pakistan, us locals are somehow consumed by the western opinions rather than echoing our own experiences. So, as a twenty-something woman born and bred in Pakistan, I wonder where do local opinions stand? Having had the honour of experiencing almost all provinces and over 100 cities, towns, and villages across the country, I have gathered some insights on whether Pakistan is a safe, accessible and travel-friendly place for local females and families and I am excited to share these with you.
Bumpy roads and broken alleys are not a new phenomena in Pakistan. It is also not a part of the experience for locals; it is our daily life. So we cannot categorize it within the category of adventure. For us, accessibility is about finding the right accommodation, being comfortable, being able to connect with the locals and being part of the cultural experience.
Airbnbs, hostels, cottages and residential accommodations are some of the latest additions to the tourism landscape in Pakistan. If we transcend five years into the past, it was difficult for females and families travelling on a budget, to access cheap and safe lodging. Such is not the case anymore.
Platforms like Airbnb and Booking.com have multiple listings of hostels, cottages and residential homes, which one can book with a single click. At the same time, a small community of backpackers have formed a group that connects them with locals who are willing to share their houses. There are hostels dedicated to hosting female travellers in almost all parts of Pakistan today and many residents sublet portions of their houses or offer rooms on rent for local tourists. The idea of getting to host and meet new people is exciting and encouraging. More and more tourists in Pakistan are enjoying the perks of booking cottages, vacation rentals, apartments and houses whilst travelling the country.
The best part of such rentals is that they are pocket-friendly, offer safety measures such as smart locks, security cameras and provide quality experience. Hotels are and will forever be a personal favourite but the concept of budget travelling and backpacking has also taken precedence for young and solo travellers. All of this with safety included makes one’s journey much more enriching and fulfilling — and possible.
Camping and Glamping
When visiting mountainous regions, one wishes to camp under the star-studded sky and to fall asleep stargazing. The thought to enjoy the ultimate adventure filled with serenity and the much-needed ‘quiet’ one wishes to acquire when surrounded by the mountains is nothing short of a dream. The great news is, you can do all this in several parts of KP, Gilgit Baltistan and even Balochistan. Many local tourism spots are offering this experience and in many of these spots, camps have already been setup, which can be rented out. Whether you’re new to the experience, or a frequent camper, there are many options to choose from. You can always rent camps and equipment if you want to travel light!
Glamping is at the moment limited to Skardu, but it is an exquisite experience and the exclusivity makes it even more desirable for tourists to visit Skardu. For those who want to enjoy an authentic experience, there are several hidden spots one can trek to. Balochistan, in particular, has a variety of mini paradises to offer but the facility of glamping isn’t readily available. So one must carry their own equipment, food and have off-road jeeps to drive up and down the mountains.
Safety is a real concern but is not limited to Pakistan. There are measures, which must be put in place to make tourism an easy choice for local females and families. Many times, aspiring solo females do not wish to travel alone for the reasons of safety and those who do have to carry their safety equipment. As a solo traveller, so do I and would also encourage others to do the same. Even though the chance of having an unpleasant experience is slim, given the helpful nature of our countrymates, safety remains something to consider, and so there needs to be a system in place to ensure safety of travel for females.
If you look from afar, Pakistan is indeed a man’s world. There are more men in the parliament and even female political leaders are guarded by men. You will see men as your drivers, waiters, tour guides and even the business owners at the souvenir shop will mostly be men. But if you are a female traveller, the same men will guide you, guard you and invite you over to meet their wife, sister, mother and children. This reminds me of when I was visiting Lahore in 2015, with some friends. One evening, I happened to be returning to my accommodation in Defence from Badshahi Masjid. It was not an era of Careem or Uber; you either had your private car or you relied on public transport. I stood outside the commercial area searching for a rickshaw, willing to drive the distance. Finally I found a middle-aged uncle who was sweet, chatty and offered me a fare, which worked for me. During the ride when he realized I was not from Lahore, he offered a Lahori local’s mini-tour and even stopped at local chaat carts and kulfi walas so that I could try the taste of Lahore. It was his love for his city that he shared with me. In that 45-minute, jampacked ride from Badshahi Masjid to Defence, he told me stories of the city I had not heard before or since.
Similarly, while taking a leisurely evening stroll outside my accommodation in Gulmit, a local kid offered me some tea at her house and I took the opportunity to have the tea with her parents and grandparents in her quaint residence by the hillside. I also remember when I was visiting Swat for the first time with my family at the age of 12, our tour guide invited us over for a farewell dinner at his house with his family. A simple and delicious, homecooked meal sprinkled with love, was offered to us and we devoured it to our hearts’ content. And this is what Pakistan has to offer — be it a local female solo traveller, a family or someone from abroad.
With an upward shift in local tourism landscape in Pakistan, we must also consider its correlation with the environment. My experiences corroborate the media in this regard. Many places, which were once cleaner and better maintained in terms of their infrastructure, are in poor shape today. Unfortunately, with the rise in tourism, Pakistan is also experiencing an increase in air, water and soil pollution. Lakes, ponds, and streams are filled with plastic and one can spot more rubbish on the land than in a dumpster. There is a need for waste management as well as responsible behaviour by tourists in how they dispose of their waste. In a recent conversation with a friend who had returned from a camping trip in Balochistan, I learned that she and her friends had to first clean the pond before they could enjoy a swim in the freshwater. This is not an uncommon story and I too have experienced a similar situation. It breaks one’s heart and makes one ponder over the sad environmental conditions in Pakistan.
At the moment, we might not have the infrastructure for easy access, we might not be home to global luxurious hotels as yet or even have the services, which are readily available at other top travel destinations, but guests are welcomed with an open-heart and treated like royalty. With a little more effort, Pakistan can overcome these shortcomings and materialize the immense tourism potential that it most certainly has. HH
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