Just how safe is Pakistan?

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On the morning of 5th January 2019 a car bomb exploded in Peshawar. It left six people severely injured. At the time of writing there is no claim of responsibility. In the week prior to this latest atrocity a report was widely, and erroneously, circulated that said that Portugal had declared Pakistan to be ‘completely safe’ or ‘safe’ for its citizens to travel there. The source of the reports was a travel advisory that was completely misunderstood or possibly willfully misinterpreted by a registered news agency and publisher that claims to be ‘the premier online English News Agency of Pakistan and a source of authentic national, regional and international news’ with a monthly viewership of 5 million. The report which was headlined “First European State declares Pakistan completely safe for tourist and business travel” could not have been more misleading as a reading of the complete advisory by the Portuguese government reveals, as it details the risks associated with travel to Pakistan and nowhere does it declare the country risk free.

A host of issues arise, not the least being concerns about the responsibility of news and media outlets in respect of the accuracy of what they produce, and secondly the question of just how safe for foreign travelers Pakistan really is – to say nothing of just how safe the ordinary citizen is. Most countries that have missions or embassies in Pakistan issue travel advisories for their nationals which are updated to reflect the prevailing security situation. They tend as might be expected towards the conservative because no country wishes to put its citizens at hazard by following advice that is incorrect or misleading. To find that an otherwise accurate travel advisory by Portugal has been misrepresented is unlikely to endear the Portuguese government to Pakistan in the broadest sense.

To the matter of how safe Pakistan is to anybody, be they foreign nationals or indigenous, the answer is safer than it was two years ago but by no means as safe as it ought or needs to be, and nowhere near safe enough to prompt a wholesale revision of travel advisory notes by foreign governments. Direct attacks on foreign travelers are extremely rare and they always were. The most serious in recent years was the 2013 Nanga Parbat massacre which saw the deaths of 10 foreign climbers and a local guide. The attack was claimed by the Tehreek-i-Pakistan. There has been nothing of this magnitude since. In part this may be a function of the very low levels of tourism that Pakistan experiences, and the majority of tourists that it receives go to areas that have long accommodated them, principally the mountainous north. That may change if tourist volumes take an uptick, especially if tourists who may lack some of the more nuanced cultural sensitivities visit areas new to the tourism experience. Only time will tell.

Regarding the dissemination of inaccurate material either willfully or mistakenly there can be nothing but a deep concern. The revealing of the falsity of the report regarding the Portuguese advisory is damaging to Pakistan because it has already been picked up by foreign news agencies. We are revealed as irresponsible at best. Lying and deliberately deceitful at worst. We might hope for some earnest introspection on the part of the agency responsible, possibly stretching to a prominently published apology.

The bottom line is that Pakistan is today and in truth has been for decades far safer to travel in than the image it carries like an albatross around its neck. Even at the height of the terrorism wave that engulfed the state foreigners mostly passed though unscathed – not so the ordinary person who may have been closely targeted or just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. That at least has shown a marked improvement. The current government has flagged tourism as an area that it is keen to develop and incentivise. We can do nothing other than support this and wish well to an industry that has languished far below its potential. Safe? No, not yet but there are grounds for some cautious optimism.