As I dropped my wife off at Heathrow early this morning, I had a sudden rush of adrenalin and the overwhelming urge to join her through the departure gates. She was heading to Lahore and I desperately wanted to go with her to immerse myself in that jewel of a city. No matter how many vacations this Englishman has enjoyed there, I can never tire of the Pearl of the Punjab.
Why then is the first result when I type ‘Lahore’ into Google the Lahore Kebab House in East London? Tasty, for sure, but hardly informative if I want to learn about one of the world’s great forgotten cities. Someone involved with Lahore tourism needs to get a grip and take charge. This most beautiful, captivating and intriguing city is practically devoid of oversees visitors. Wait, what’s that you say … there is institution in charge of promoting Lahore tourism? Really? Well, why not? One look at the clunky and outdated website of the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation and even a foreigner can tell that Lahore’s online profile needs a facelift.
I’ve visited the Badshahi Masjid numerous times over the last five years. Except for one occasion, I’m always the only foreign tourist there. On my first visit there were a couple of Canadian girls backpacking their way around South Asia, all dreadlocks, big boots and sunny smiles. They were exactly the kind of tourist that my now severely out-dated guide book told me I might find because Pakistan was only for the ‘adventurous’ and not for the ‘feint-hearted.’ It is a crime that Lahore’s myriad architectural wonders steeped in romance and mystery are seen by so few. It’s nice to be able to experience Shahi Qila or Jahangir’s Tomb without the great crowds that ruin a trip to the Notre Dame for example. But it would be good to see some other foreign faces when walking through the Old City on the way to Wazir Khan Masjid. To exchange brief glances and perhaps a knowing nod that says ‘yes, I feel it too,’ that surge of excitement at the wonder of the other.
The global tourist’s neglect of Lahore is made worse by the fact that only a few hundred miles away in India, travellers are crawling all over magnificent buildings from the same era and cultural heritage. Indeed, some even built on the orders of the same Mughal emperor. In fact, at historical attractions of such grandeur and importance all over Asia you will find people from Europe, North America, Japan and other countries. But not in Pakistan. Instead of a tourist swarm, the best you can hope for is to occasionally bump into a gora at the Pearl Continental Hotel or one of the smart restaurants on M.M. Alam Road. Once, I even saw a couple of American businessmen enjoying halwa puri at Liberty Market.
I cannot tell you how happy that sight made me. I may be a pasty, white Englishman but I’m married to a deeply proud Pakistani and it’s very hard for the great love of country and culture that she possesses not to rub off on me a little. My natural instinct is always to stick up for Pakistan. I get terribly irate and upset when the only images of the country that stream into the living rooms of westerners is that of masked men beating young girls and armed men shooting cricket teams. In fact, when the news broke about the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team, my heart sank. There was Liberty Chowk, a place full of memories of fun, joyful evenings and feeling ever so slightly too full after gorging on chicken handi at Salt ‘n’ Pepper. If only the people watching that horror knew of the feelings and experiences that I and so many others associate with Liberty, the incident would have felt more like an anomaly or a tragedy. But, alas, the good name of Lahore was to be dragged through the mud and added to the list of dangerous terrorist-ridden holes to be avoided at all costs.
This is precisely why Lahore, and Pakistan in general, needs a rejuvenated tourist board and a concerted effort to not just repair, but completely overhaul its image. It needs cheerleaders. And they need to be loud and in-your-face because despite the recent trouble, Lahore is still not a dangerous place. I haven’t got statistics. I won’t throw a few figures your way for comparison. But for all the years I have travelled through this great city I have never felt anything but completely safe. Yes, I get a few stares and attract a little curiosity, but I’ve never experienced anything but kindness and generosity of the type rarely found elsewhere. That combined with the breathtaking array of historical and cultural landmarks, fabulous bazaars, seriously tempting cuisine and beautiful parks is more than enough for any tourist brochure.
Cultural differences mean that a holiday in Pakistan will never be exactly like a vacation to India or Thailand. No boozy full moon dance parties or seedy cruises up and down the beaches here. But there is a market out there for cultural tourism. People who want to enjoy all the sights, sounds and smells of a place totally different to home.
Ultimately, this is really just a plea, an appeal to the Punjab government to take the time and money to actively promote Lahore – and, therefore, Pakistan – in its best light to the world community. I want others to have the same experience that I do every time I step out of Allama Iqbal International Airport and breathe in the warm air in the early morning sun and feel thousands of years of history just waiting to be explored.
Source: The Dawn