Pakistan has been on the brink of being tourism's ‘next big thing’ for more years than we care to remember. It’s a destination that has so much to offer visitors; drive the Karakoram Highway through the endless peaks of the Karakoram Mountains, or wander through the architectural glories of the former Mughal capital Lahore, the ancient bazaars of Quetta or the cosmopolitan streets of Karachi. But every time the country seems to be gearing up to refresh the palates of travellers jaded with last year’s hip destination, world media headlines send things off the rails – again. No matter the attractions, tourism in Pakistan has always been something of a hard sell. A glance at the map shows the country living in a pretty difficult region: always-unruly Afghanistan to one side, Iran to another, and a border with India running through the 60-year-old fault line of Kashmir. But since the events of 9/11, Western pundits have increasingly been wondering if Pakistan isn’t just living in a tough neighbourhood, it is the tough neighbourhood.
Pakistan and political stability have never been particularly happy bedfellows. President Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, looked to have an unassailable position until relatively recently. Selling himself as a bulwark against radical Islamism on one hand and the old corrupt elites on the other, he turned himself into a key player in Washington’s ‘War on Terror’ and was rewarded with soft loans and military aid. In 2007, everything was thrown into disorder. An attempt to sack the country’s chief justice resulted in a red-faced retreat in the face of middle- class protests. At the same time, domestic Islamists stepped up their bloody campaigns in the wake of the deadly storming of Islamabad’s Red Mosque. Pakistan’s army had already found itself fighting to a standstill in the lawless Tribal Areas along the Afghan border, and later quelling related violence in the Swat Valley. It signed the short-lived Waziristan Compact that negotiated a peace – of sorts – with Pakistani Taliban, but ultimately showed that having once given official government sanction to such radicals, it was now holding a tiger by its tail.
It was anyone’s guess how Musharraf’s attempts to pull things together would play. The imposition of a state of emergency curtailed the press and judiciary, and soon after being lifted, the country was rocked by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, recently returned from exile to take her place again in Pakistani politics. Such a high profile murder presaged a potentially very troubled future for Pakistan. But against this background, there is another Pakistan, a world away from the headlines. Although conservative, Pakistanis are by nature a welcoming and hospitable people to foreigners, trying to get by in the face of indifference from their government and occasional hostility from the outside world. High politics is of less interest than jobs and the cost of cooking oil and flour. As such, travellers are usually met with genuine interest and enthusiasm. The scams and hustle you might experience in heavily travelled India are nowhere to be seen here. Instead, look forward to spontaneously offered cups of tea and conversations about cricket. You’ll feel like you have the country to yourself. Attractions that would have been splashed over the glossy pages of newspaper travel supplements are almost empty. While enthusiastic travel advice comes tinged with official government travel advisories, you’ll need to keep one eye on the news before booking your ticket – but once here, you’ll realise that Pakistan really is one of the world’s best-kept travel secrets.