It’s easy to forget just how popular Pakistan used to be as a holiday destination. Back in the mid-1990s, the country attracted tens of thousands of adventure tourists: trekkers, mountaineers, horse-riders, white-water rafters, even Buddhist pilgrims all arrived in droves to experience the mountains, the culture, the people. Oh, how things have changed. I probably don’t have to try too hard to convince you that the geopolitical challenges of the early 2000s took a heavy toll on Pakistan’s tourism. It was devastating. And, ever since, as both a tour operator and a travel writer, I’ve felt like a lone voice, trying to convince the world to return to what, to me, is still adventure travel’s best-kept secret. Not easy. Still, finally, things are starting to change. Since 2015, my company, Wild Frontiers, has seen a marked increase in bookings to Pakistan. Why? Well, a number of reasons: first, it seems that at last politicians, the army and the public seem to have galvanised their opposition to domestic militants, and, with a couple of exceptions, most of the country has settled down to levels of calm not seen since 2007. There’s still some way to go, but things are definitely improving on the security front.
The celebration of the country’s 70th anniversary this year, and all the positive media attention it received, has helped, too. A strengthening economy has seen investment in the country’s infrastructure: a new, more reliable fleet of domestic aircraft now connect the country’s beautiful north with its capital; vast tracts of the famous Karakoram Highway have been completely rebuilt, the new tunnel around Lake Attabad has re-opened, and many hotels are improving their facilities, including the spectacular Hindukush Heights, now with a beautiful swimming pool with views of Chitral’s mountains. Lastly, there are the Pakistanis themselves: the Swat Valley, a total no-go region in the late 2000s, is once again attracting large numbers of domestic tourists. So are both Hunza and Skardu in the north (the British Foreign Commonwealth Office removed it from its no-travel list in 2015). And, in our experience, where the domestic market treads, so the international one follows. In fact, we’ve just launched two new tours for 2018, a year we reckon will see a surge in visitors not seen in a generation; the year Pakistan finally gets back on the bucket list. Here’s hoping, anyway. Or, as the locals say, inshallah.