When I was invited by some friends to go on vacation with them to Sri Lanka, my first thoughts were that of hesitation. Like others, I had not really heard great things about that part of the world. However, I relented and to tell you the truth, my curiosity peaked when I read that the ?The New York Times? had declared Sri Lanka to be the numero uno travel destination in 2010.
They were not wrong to say the least; the entire country was like a big tropical zoo and paradise! One could see monkeys swinging along roads, elephants and giant iguanas crossing main streets while the beaches we went to in Mahawella were extraordinary. The people are very friendly and literate (even the tuk tuk drivers spoke flawless English) and the mountain retreat of Nuwara Eliya was quite magical, with its green peaks and tea reservations clouded in white mist. I almost expected to see an elf or two up there!
What really got to me throughout my trip was that even though Pakistan may not have the elephants to match Sri Lanka, we do have everything else to offer in terms of tourism. The beaches at Kund Malir in Balochistan and those even closer such as that at Sonehri village outside Karachi are not lacking in marine life or beauty. Likewise the mountain retreats of Nathia Gali and even further up north in Shangrila have been rated as some of the most beautiful in the world. We even have K2! So why is it that people are flocking to Sri Lanka as a tourist destination whereas the mere mention of our country conjures nightmares?
I think it has to do something with tolerance. As a community and as a nation, the Sri Lankans are a very tolerant people. If you observe one of them walking along the road, you will notice how they literally break out in a song and start humming; they are happy in their existence. Is it not strange for a nation which has witnessed one of the bloodiest civil war for years, to be so tolerant and accepting of the other? This tolerance extends into the spiritual realm as well; I saw temples built next to mosques, next to monasteries all over the country, with people going about their own religious duties without any sort of interference.
Tolerance is what we lack as a nation. We angrily honk while driving, snap at someone who is standing in a queue and we hardly ever take the initiative to make something happen, and then we complain of no progress. Just consider our passports ? the application contains a question about our religious beliefs. What is the point of having that question in our passport application form? Whatever happened to freedom of religion or choice of worship, can we not co-exist peacefully with non-Muslims?
We also tend to blame everyone else for our problems. Why is it that no private enterprise has ever tried to build a resort at any of our beaches? Are all of them inaccessible or mired in red tape? Granted the war along the borders has had an effect on the hotels and retreats there, with very few foreigners wanting to visit. But what of the locals from around the country? What about building hotels and providing incentives for the locals to travel around the country?
All we have progressed in is the deafening noise from the religious right of how we cannot turn our country into a brothel or nightclub just to get some foreign dollars. We do not need to do that, all we need to do is promote our own culture as well as the incredible sights and sounds our country has to offer. It?s not too much to ask for. In fact, we do not even have to look too far for tourists; we could just promote tourism within the SAARC countries by relaxing some of the visa regulations and providing the visitors with a modicum of security.
So shall we open our arms to the world for once? Let them see what it is about Pakistan that we have all come to love despite its various frailties? Or should we just sit back and complain some more? The choice as it always was, is ours.