This article originally appeared on VICE Asia
Pakistan is considered by many to be one of the world’s most dangerous places. Thirteen years ago, Newsweek controversially declared it the most dangerous nation in the world, while the United States Bureau of Consular Affairs still begins their webpage on Pakistan with the following: “reconsider travel to Pakistan due to terrorism.” And yet, this month, the Condé Nast Traveller named Pakistan the Best Travel Destination for 2020.
Objectively speaking, Pakistan is quite scenic. It has hilly mountainous regions, soaring cliffsides, and white-sand beaches. The country is part of the Himalayas, and subsequently has some of the tallest peaks in the world, while its cities are filled with old Hindu temples, mosques, and bazaars. But political conflict taints this image.
In the late 00s and early 2010s tribal militias and terrorist organisations like the Taliban and al-Qaeda found a footing in Pakistan, as disdain for the central government and American influence grew. With a government that was unable to provide basic services for its people, especially in rural areas, these organisations garnered support by filling the social and economic vacuums that the government left open. They preyed on the frustrations of many young men who, unable to find work, were angry with the country’s growing inequality.
As their influence grew, so did the violence. Terrorists killed not only each other and security forces, but also civilian masses in ceaseless insurgencies, tribal wars, and terrorist plots. The government seemed powerless. Many worried that Pakistan would eventually follow in the footsteps of Afghanistan, where the Taliban has controlled large parts of the country for two decades and has been at war for most of that time.
The situation escalated when in 2007, then President Pervez Musharraf ordered the siege of the Taliban’s nerve centre in Islamabad, the Lal Masjid. According to Aqdas Afzal, an assistant professor in economics and public policy based in Karachi, this enraged many Islamic factions and eventually drove them to join hands with the Taliban in Afghanistan, basically forming the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan to get revenge against the Pakistani state.
“And from that point on, things just went south,” he told VICE.
“Peshawar was being hit every single day. While I was fortunate enough to never witness the carnage of a bomb explosion myself, I did hear and feel two or three of them. That shockwave is one of the most frightening things you can imagine.”
During those years, daily life in Pakistan was put on hold. There were little to no activities taking place in public spaces, in a country where public concerts, funfairs, and cricket matches in the streets used to be weekly occurrences.
“A general sense of horror and gloom descended on the city, and you could see it in peoples’ faces,” Afzal said. “The security situation was just completely out of control, and that continued for years.”
Many believe that the government struggled to contain terrorism because the then ruling Pakistan Peoples Party put a hold on imposing the death penalty. This supposedly emboldened the terrorists who knew that no matter what they did, the punishment would not be as harsh as death.
That all changed in 2014 when Pakistan’s military launched two major operations — the Zarb-e-Azb and Khyber Operations — aimed at dismantling extremist activity in the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
“Fighters were killed, and leadership was neutralised,” said Afzal. “The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan were completely wiped out by the Pakistan Armed Forces and other law enforcement agencies.”
Pakistanis reached their tipping point later that year when six gunmen affiliated with the Taliban slaughtered 149 people, including 132 schoolchildren, at the Army Public School in the city of Peshawar.
One Pakistani student who wished to remain anonymous told VICE that he believed, “the attack changed the Pakistani people’s mindset from ‘it is unfortunate, but it has to be done’ to ‘kill all the terrorists right now, and show no mercy.’”
The attack led to a surge in public and political support for the military, then led by General Raheel Sharif, which amped up all its operations that year. This would eventually result in the deaths of more than 4,000 terrorists between 2014 and 2016.
As a result, deaths caused by terrorism dramatically decreased. From 12,000 deaths in 2009 (32 per day), the number declined by 87 percent by 2017 and continues to do so. In 2019, fewer than 300 people were killed in terrorist attacks nationwide.
But Afzal does not think Pakistan’s transformation can be credited to a single person.
“I want to thank the common people of this country who bore the plight of this campaign of terror, and who came out on the other side victorious,” he said.
“They were hanging in there, and I think hanging in there is a great achievement. If this had happened in any other society, everything would have changed. People would have run away. Their resilience was astonishing, and right now, we’re seeing the Pakistani people rise like a phoenix out of the ashes.”
Now that peace has been reestablished in the vast majority of Pakistan, the government has seized the opportunity to rebrand itself based on its diverse nature and rich cultural heritage that were always around but scarcely explored.
According to Aftab Rana, President of the Sustainable Tourism Foundation Pakistan, the new security situation has been essential in attracting foreigners. Not only because it’s much less terrifying, but also because it has allowed the government to significantly ease the visa application process, while some foreign governments have started to relax their travel advisories for the country.
Tourists are now also allowed to travel freely in many rural areas, which previously required special permits and military escorts. This has been crucial to Pakistan’s brand as a tourist destination because those same areas are some of the country’s best attractions.
“Before this, not even the hardcore adventurers bothered to visit here, even though we have everything they could ever dream of,” Rana said.
Between 2013 to 2018, the number of tourists visiting Pakistan increased threefold, from about 550,000 to more than 1.8 million. Although at least half of these were Pakistani expats with foreign passports, Rana said that the government hopes to attract foreigners by the millions in the coming years.
Social media has played a big role in rehabilitating Pakistan’s reputation. For many years, YouTube was banned in Pakistan, which meant that very few first-hand experiences flowed out of the country. When the ban was lifted in 2016, it allowed for local and foreign influencers to drastically enhance the country’s image.
Eva zu Beck, a 28-year-old Polish travel vlogger who lived in Pakistan for over a year, has risen to fame both inside and outside Pakistan for creating videos portraying what she calls “the real Pakistan.” She now has more than 420,000 subscribers.
Many young Pakistanis believe Beck and other vloggers like her are saving their country from its poor international image, and praise her for showing the world that Pakistan’s reality outshines its reputation.
Beck admitted that she got cold feet when she first travelled to Pakistan and felt unsafe when she was the only foreigner waiting to board the plane, but she eventually felt at ease.
“I was thinking that maybe I shouldn’t go,” she said. “But very quickly, people started asking me how come I was visiting Pakistan, and they were so friendly and reassuring already from before I even boarded the flight,” she told VICE.
While acknowledging that others may have had a different experience, Beck said that she has never once felt unsafe in Pakistan. In fact, she said, she felt safer there than in any European city.
She added that she had always felt taken care of by Pakistan’s people, who often approached her to try to be of assistance. They would offer to drop her off somewhere, invite her for dinner, or ask her to stay over.
“I’ve always had the sentiment that people were looking out for me,” she said.
Pop culture depicts Pakistan in one way: a desert with lots of sand, shacks, and camels. A place where men have long beards and wear turbans, while the women are completely covered up. Beck hopes to help the world see past these stereotypes and labels like “terrorism,” that many associate with the country.
“It’s like the whole world stripped away its culture and just reduced it to that one idea, and no one talked about the beautiful culture, the food, the beautiful languages, or the resilience of the Pakistani people,” she said. “It’s just overall such a fascinating country to visit because it just completely shatters all of your expectations.”
She added that many Pakistanis lament to her about their frustrations with how foreigners perceive their country. They would tell her that 'the whole world just sees us as terrorists, and they think Pakistan is dangerous,' even though in reality, they are just regular people who want the world to know about their beautiful country.
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