Back in the 60s and 70s, Pakistan was a popular stop off point on the hippie trail that stretched from Bangkok all the way to Istanbul.
Since then because of political and social instability there’s been a lull in tourism. Recently, Pakistan has slowly started making a comeback among globetrotters.
This is evidenced by the fact that Pakistan has made it to several end of year travel lists such as Conde Nast Traveler, which ranked Pakistan as the top holiday destination to visit in 2020 and Forbes ranked the country among the 10 best under the radar trips. Due to this, a large influx of tourists are expected to visit in the coming year.
With improved accessibility, via an increasing number of airlines flying in and out of the country, and relaxed visa regulations, visiting Pakistan has never been easier.
Based on our collective experience of meeting several tourists visiting Pakistan, we have compiled a comprehensive list of top ten tips for those planning a trip to Pakistan.
1) Plan, plan, and plan some more
Pakistan as a country encompasses a varied swath of land, comprising of the Indian Ocean in the south and some of the most formidable mountains in the world in the north.
Each region of the country is starkly different from the other. Therefore, one short trip is not enough to cover the whole country. If time is of the essence, pick and choose according to your interests.
If you are looking to immerse yourself in the chaos of a bustling metropolis and sample mind-blowing cuisine, be sure to spend some time in Karachi.
Lahore is a must visit for history buffs and culture aficionados, as the city is home to some of the most magnificent Mughal ruins and architecture in all of Pakistan. Adrenaline junkies looking to go trekking in the Hindukush, Karakorum or Himalayas should consider flying into the capital, Islamabad, and from there journey on northward.
2) Getting around
Several travel options are available depending on the traveller’s time and budget. In recent years, inter-connectivity between Pakistani cities has improved majorly via efficient bus services such as Daewoo and Faisal Movers that run on the country’s many newly constructed motorways and highways.
Additionally, airlines travel to all major and minor cities, including Skardu and Gilgit, located in the mountains up north. Travellers who want to explore the country at a more leisurely pace and enjoy the scenery along the way can get on board one of many trains traversing the country.
3) Go with the flow
Pakistan’s tourism industry is still in its infancy, as the country is still recovering from the aftermath of the war on terror and years of political instability, because of which basic touristic facilities such as, budget accommodation, public toilets, intercity transport and budget airlines are still under development.
That said, Pakistan has made progress in leaps and bounds in the past few years, but tourists should not expect the same luxuries and facilities offered by other countries in the region such as Sri Lanka and Nepal. Most Pakistanis are very wily and hospitable by nature; in case of any issues, your host will find a way to accommodate your needs.
Just remember to go with the flow in case your transport is delayed, or if roads are blocked due to heavy downpour or a landslide; in most cases you will eventually get to your destination albeit a little later. Always have a backup plan just in case and try not to get frustrated with us, we’re still learning.
Most travellers’ primary concern when planning their visit to Pakistan is the security situation. Pakistan’s law and order situation has improved significantly in recent years. However, there are still some standard precautions that travellers should take while visiting that is, be alert of your surroundings, avoid travelling alone late at night and talk to locals to get a better idea of on the ground security in each locality.
Solo female travellers looking to venture out of the major cities into the heartland should consider travelling in packs or with a male travel companion. Do not be surprised if you receive a security escort while crossing over from Iran into Balochistan or while exploring South Punjab or on the regions bordering Afghanistan. While this might be an annoyance to some travellers, they should understand that it is for their own safety.
5) Choose your gastronomic battles wisely
It’s no secret that Pakistanis are extremely proud of their local cuisine. Many will insist that you try all of the local delicacies, maybe even all at once. However, as a traveller, you should choose your gastronomic battles wisely.
The local intestinal microbiome and immune system is much more accustomed to an assortment of spices and enteral pathogens than the average immune system. Ease yourself into sampling the local offerings rather than diving in headfirst lest you want to spend the majority of your trip in the bathroom.
While experienced travellers can be more adventurous with their meals, rookie travellers should exercise caution especially early on in their trip. Pack some antibiotics and sachets of oral rehydration solution in case you do fall prey to one of the local stomach bugs.
6) When in doubt, ask a local
Pakistan can be a minefield to navigate around for an outsider not familiar with the terrain, local culture and traditions. Prior to your visit, consider getting in touch with a local to properly guide you on the ins and outs of travelling through the country.
Recommended social media platforms for this purpose are Instagram, which houses a thriving community of local tour guides who are passionate about promoting tourism in Pakistan; and couch-surfing which is a vibrant community of locals who have opened up their houses for travellers to stay at for free while visiting the country.
7) Respect the culture
Travellers visiting Pakistan should keep in mind that most of Pakistan is still very conservative and they should dress accordingly. Those exploring the older parts of major cities or venturing through the rural countryside should opt to dress modestly; for men, that means not wearing shorts and for women, that means carrying a scarf with them at all times.
Contrary to popular belief propagated by foreign bloggers, not everything here is for free. Local vendors might be very accommodating and hospitable to foreign travellers, and insist on giving away goods for free, but please keep in mind that often these people are very poor so insist on paying.
8) Ask questions
As Pakistanis, we are well-aware of the skewed perception the world has of us and most of the locals are very eager to dispel those notions. Travellers should not shy away from asking questions in a respectful and non-patronising manner. You will find that most Pakistani are very candid, if at times politically incorrect, which might come as a surprise to many travellers.
While most Pakistanis do not mind having their picture taken, be sure to ask their permission before snapping a photo of somebody on the street especially women. Think twice before flexing for the gram by taking a picture with a security guard’s Kalashnikov.
These pictures are often as a sign of extreme disrespect in light of country’s gruesome history with terrorism. Pakistan has a lot to offer in terms of terrain, culture, and natural beauty; it is always disappointing to see tourists go out of their way to take pictures of impoverished areas and slums. A recent example of this was when American musician Diplo chose to misrepresent the country by posting a picture in front of slum in Islamabad online.
European looking travellers may often be approached by locals for a photograph, in fact many Western travellers say they feel like celebrities in the country, if the traveller is comfortable with taking such pictures, they should go ahead with it but keep in mind Pakistan’s colonial past and “gora complex” – that is the idea that those with lighter skin are better and more valued in society. It would be best to not further reinforce these ideals, be a responsible traveller.
10) Immerse yourself in the culture
Be sure to visit the country with an open mind, leave all preconceived notions and everything you think you know about it back home. Pakistanis really appreciate tourists that take a keen interest in their culture, so do not be afraid to dress in the local attire. Learning a few Urdu words and phrases will help break down barriers and help travellers make friends along the way.
So when are you planning to come to Pakistan?
All photos are by Bilal Hassan. You can follow him on Instagram: @mystapaki.