Digitalization of Tourism Industry: Challenges and Opportunities for Pakistan

Center of Pakistan and International Relations (COPAIR) with the collaboration of Signature Hotels launching ‘Digital Tourism Project’. Digital Tourism launch with the Center of Pakistan and International Relations (COPAIR) and Signature Hotels aims to advocate policy for institutionalization of the tourism industry and to bring foreign investment in Pakistan by attracting foreign tourist and domestic tourist to contribute in the economy of Pakistan. Its epicenter of digital destination market aims to promote tourism industry, generate deeper connections with partners, & present latest trends in eTourism.

International tourism has always contributed significantly to global economic development and integration. From generating revenue to providing employment and increasing market competitiveness of countries, the tourism industry has become a crucial part of sustainable development. For this purpose, agenda 2030 of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has incorporated the tourism industry as a vital source of economic development.

However, considering the revolution in Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) tourism industry has evidently experienced a shift from a ‘classical tourism system’ to E-tourism. The evolution of the tourism industry has gone through various stages during the last four decades. Initially, this system was supported by an email system leading to the emergence of the Computer Reservation System (CRS) which conducted online transactions related to air travel, hotels and car rentals. Parallel to this emerged Global Distribution Systems (GDS), also known as the ‘brain’ of the tourism industry. This was then replaced by the Internet Distribution System (IDS), which made possible the availability of online portals for travel and other agencies. The present phase of this evolution is E-tourism which has largely digitalized the tourism industry and infrastructure by using the internet to dissipate information. This digitalization includes the use of modern technology and social media networks like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and many other outlets. Modern communication tools are making it easier for customers to choose their favourite destinations while managing financial expenses online. E-tourism incorporates the concepts of digital economy such as ‘e-business’, ‘e-commerce’, ‘e-services’ and ‘e-marketing’. In short”, e-tourism refers to ‘digitization of all the processes and value chains’ associated with tourism, hospitality, and catering industries to maximize the effectiveness and productivity of organizations involved.

Benefits of e-tourism for developing countries

Developing countries worldwide can also reap the benefits of e-tourism to boost their economic growth. There is a huge opportunity for developing countries to generate foreign exchange from tourism which will ultimately contribute to their sustainable growth and development. Most developing nations rely on tourism, capital, agriculture, and energy development for their growth process. A decade ago, most of the developing nations were dependent on richer and developed countries due to their technological outreach and sophistication. But today the availability of technology is almost everywhere, providing a considerable edge to developing countries to advance their tourism industry by digitalizing it. The leading technologies involved in e-business such as Web services, semantic Web, recommender systems, context awareness technologies and tourism guide applications on mobile phones.

Tourism in Pakistan

Pakistan is one of those countries in the world blessed with a diverse inventory of tourism attractions. With the world’s oldest civilization, exotic peaks and marvellous seasonal variety, it has become one of ‘its best tourist destinations. Pakistan is home to adventure tourism, conventional tourism, religious tourism, archaeological tourism, and coastal tourism. All of these ultimately contribute to the economic development of the country. Adventure tourism refers to the ‘sightseeing’ of magnificent places of Pakistan like mountain ranges, rivers and valleys. It also includes the thrilling experiences of skiing, climbing, water rafting etc. Various traditions, cultural and sports festivals are also center of attraction for many domestic and international tourists. This is known as conventional tourism, which includes festivals like the Sibi festival, Mela Chiraghan, horse and cattle shows and many other similar festivals all across Pakistan. Religious tourism is also very important, considering the recent developments like Kartarpur corridor, which led to inter-religious harmony. Pakistan is the center for many religious groups, especially Sikhs and Buddhists. Archaeological tourism includes the remains of ancient civilizations present in Pakistan, like the Indus valley civilization, which is 3000BC old. With a coastline of about 990 km, Pakistan has the potential of generating $4-5billion from coastal tourism, but unfortunately, it is generating just $50,000 from this industry for now. With the development of CPEC and especially Gwadar port, this potential has doubled.

From tourism to E-tourism

Despite having a vast potential, Pakistan is lagging in securing the actual benefits of tourism. This is primarily because it has not been implementing modern communication and technology methods in advancing the tourism industry. As per the most recent reports of the World Travel and Tourism Council, Pakistan generated a revenue of $8.8 Billion in 2021, which constitutes 2.9% of the total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Pakistan. This percentage has reduced which previously was 5.7% of the total GDP in 2019. Due to Covid-19 the influx of tourists decreased during 2020-21 but the end of the novel virus has revived the tourism industry.

Challenges

Unfortunately, Pakistan is still not able to attract international tourists due to multiple challenges.  Out of a list of 141 countries, Pakistan is 130th at having an Enabling Environment, 138th on the Safety and Security index, 102nd on the Health and Hygiene index, 138th on the Human Resource and Labor Market index, 123rd on the Travel and Tourism Policy and Enabling Conditions, 120th on Prioritization of Travel and Tourism by the Government, 107th on Tourism Infrastructure, and 141st out of 141 countries on the Environmental Sustainability index. Due to ‘the relative stable security situation during the last five years, Pakistan was ranked as the world’s top tourist destination in 2020 by Condé Nast Traveler, a luxury traveler magazine guiding tourists worldwide. Nevertheless, due to lack of awareness about the country being ranked as top country, it has not reached the potential that its tourism industry has. In the era of technological innovation, there are only two e-tourism service providers currently operating within Pakistan: TripAdvisor and Expedia. PTDC is still in the planning phase to develop the e-portal for tourism. Another extremely concerning issue is the absence of local operators from the scene.

Policy recommendations to boost e-tourism

  • Creation of e-portal– The creation of an e-portal at national level is necessary to attract international tourists. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) Government launched an initiative called ‘Brand Pakistan’ under the National Tourism strategy (2020-2030). This initiative is comprised of three components: brand identity development, musical score creation and an e-portal. This e-portal is supposed to make all the tourist attractions available at one click. But this e-portal is not yet implemented and is in development phase from last two years.

  • Comprehensive National Tourism Policy– As the 18thamendment devolved the NTDC by transferring power to provinces about tourism, the PTI’s Government proposed to formulate National Tourism Coordination Board (NTCB). This board aimed to synergize the policies of all the provinces regarding tourism. Alongside other agendas of NTCB’s task forces, e-tourism should also be incorporated as a part of their broader objectives to promote domestic and international tourism.
  • Virtual Tourism– As the world has experienced the worst pandemic of the century, the importance of virtual technologies has offered alternatives to travel around then the world. With modern technologies, viewers from their personal spaces can experience the world. In addition to this, various tourist guides and transport businesses use virtual platforms to interact with their potential customers even during normal circumstances.

Conclusion

In a world that is moving towards a ‘digital economy’, e-tourism can significantly benefit developing countries like Pakistan. In April 2022, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government and FAST university signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which focused on the development and implementation of e-tourism facilities within Pakistan. Such initiatives can bring change at the grass-root level by improving the experience of visiting Pakistan. With the commencement of the China Pakistan Economic corridor (CPEC), many Chinese people visiting Pakistan have increased. This has provided the country with the opportunity to increase investment, especially in China’s private sector. The development of spectacular Gwadar port has also boosted ‘coastal tourism ‘in Pakistan. In short, Pakistan’s tourist industry has the potential to grow, but only with the right decision making, we can move towards the road to sustainable development.

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