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Jennifer McKay

The writer is Australian Disaster Management and Civil-Military Relations Consultant, based in Islamabad where she consults for Government and UN agencies. She has also worked with ERRA and NDMA.

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Hilal English

SIFC’s First Birthday

June 2024

SIFC has led efforts to attract foreign investment in Pakistan, notably in tourism through initiatives like the Green Tourism Initiative. By revitalizing neglected state-owned properties and promoting sustainability, SIFC aims to drive economic growth and development.



The Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC) has made significant strides in creating an investment-friendly, secure, economic ecosystem in its first year of operation. It has become the ‘go to’ organisation for foreign investors exploring new market opportunities in Pakistan through a series of carefully defined initiatives in key industry sectors.
It had become increasingly evident that a swift transformation was imperative to rejuvenate the economy and invigorate an investment environment that had fallen significantly behind its potential was paramount. Nations require a streamlined and empowered organisation to cultivate and bolster investor confidence, particularly in an emerging market. This necessity was particularly apparent in Pakistan. The whole-of-government approach, operating as a single window for investor facilitation, is not just a solution, but a necessity. Led by the Prime Minister, with the support of the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) and the participation of all provincial leaders and senior officials, SIFC was the obvious solution to promote foreign investment to friendly countries, and ultimately, the broader global investment community.
In just one year, SIFC has emerged as the cornerstone that fosters a compelling and optimistic national investment narrative across five key sectors: agriculture, energy, minerals and mining, tourism, and information technology. Additional sectors and initiatives are also being primed to showcase to potential investors.
Pakistan's vast, untapped potential for investors is indisputable. It is also indisputable that this is just one pivotal step in a larger effort to revive Pakistan's trajectory through a challenging economic landscape and demanding structural changes. Revitalisation will demand a concerted focus on economic management, stringent governance, development, expanded trade, and foreign investment. In this scenario, SIFC stands as a crucial catalyst.
However, it's important to emphasise the need for continued action to maintain this momentum, a task that requires the full attention and collaboration of all stakeholders. Despite significant progress, Pakistan still grapples with critical challenges. The complex regulatory and legal environment poses a significant barrier to progress and investment in the country. This pressing issue has been consistently highlighted by various sectors, investors, and funding institutions. 
The intricate differences in political, legal, and regulatory landscapes between the central government and the provinces make resolution challenging. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister's recent emphasis underscores the urgent need for unwavering government focus. Failure to address these issues could result in missed investment opportunities and the potential loss of existing ones for Pakistan. In a fiercely competitive global marketplace where large-scale investments take time to negotiate and finalise, there is no room for complacency in ensuring Pakistan's competitiveness.
Despite its criticality to Pakistan's economy and prosperity and the clear links to overall national development, some elements denigrate the special initiatives and instead, promote negativity. Resistance to foreign investment in critical industries like agriculture, mining, energy, tourism and information technology is not unique to Pakistan; it happens everywhere. However, negativity is often based on fear of change, a lack of understanding of the interconnectivity of investment and economic progress, and sometimes because of other agendas. Differing but constructive opinions can make valuable contributions, but negativity for the sake of it is detrimental to progress and prosperity.
SIFC’s positive narrative is resonating strongly as the wider development community increasingly grasp the enormous potential for economic revival. Many organisations, businesses, and academic institutions, are now reaching out to better engage and understand where they can fit in to contribute technical and other expertise to add value to Pakistan's investment offerings. While much has been explored and discussed on the initiatives in agriculture, minerals and mining, energy and information technology, there is one other sector that is now taking centre-stage. Tourism.
Tourism is the latest of SIFC’s key sectors now coming into sharp focus with the release of the Green Tourism Initiative. Pakistan's breathtaking landscapes, rich cultural heritage, and diverse religious sites make it an enticing destination for nature lovers, adventurers, and spiritual seekers. With its vast, untapped tourism potential, Pakistan offers many opportunities for travellers and businesses.
The SIFC Green Tourism Initiative is a comprehensive strategy and prospectus aimed at revitalising and elevating the tourism sector for the domestic and international markets, presenting a sustainable approach to attracting investment. The goals of Green Tourism are not just aspirational but a strategic roadmap to a brighter future for Pakistan's tourism industry.
▪     To assist the government in raising the standards of tourism and hospitality services in Pakistan.
▪   Provide a model for continuous improvement by incorporating best practices in tourism and hospitality services to improve visitor experience and consumer satisfaction. 
▪   Improve the profitability of accredited businesses through better operating systems, efficient resource mobilisation, improved employee morale, and greater customer satisfaction.
▪     Promote best practices of sustainable tourism through certification of tourism and hospitality businesses. 
▪  Provide an authentic source of information for tourism industry stakeholders and tourists. 
▪  Offer visitors/tourists the opportunity to make informed and confident choices about the legitimacy and quality of products.
▪    Help improve customer satisfaction and loyalty. 
▪  Introduce "National Awards of Excellence" to encourage healthy competition among certified businesses in the tourism and hospitality sector to achieve the highest level of performance. 
Tourism is an economic powerhouse, capable of driving economic activity, fostering cultural exchange, providing employment, reducing poverty, and promoting national unity and pride. However, its progress has been hindered by a lack of investment, haphazard planning facilities and environmental neglect, and inadequate incentives. The new plan adopts a collaborative approach, spanning public-private partnerships and joint ventures to community-based tourism ventures, with a strong focus on sustainability and profitability.
Accommodation options for travellers in Pakistan range from budget guesthouses and hotels to luxury hotels and resorts. The hospitality sector offers various services and amenities to cater to different preferences and budgets. Homestays, guesthouses, community-based tourism, and eco-tourism initiatives provide opportunities for authentic cultural experiences, participation and interaction with local communities. But in recent years, the gap has widened between what's on offer and the growing number of tourists, particularly on the domestic level where affordable accommodation is most in demand.
SIFC identified the gaps in the market and devised a cohesive plan to transform them into opportunities. The most apparent solution was to attract investment in sustainable tourism facilities through public-private partnerships, focusing on leasing and renovating the outdated and dilapidated government guesthouses, many of which have been closed for several years, for private sector investors. This model will greatly benefit all stakeholders including the government (through lease and other fees, profit-sharing), local communities, investors, and a new generation of tourists.


Homestays, guesthouses, community-based tourism, and eco-tourism initiatives provide opportunities for authentic cultural experiences, participation and interaction with local communities. But in recent years, the gap has widened between what's on offer and the growing number of tourists, particularly on the domestic level where affordable accommodation is most in demand.


Substantial public-private partnerships and community-based tourism opportunities exist in all parts of the country. The Green Tourism Initiative has initially identified at least 122 potential opportunities for investment in Gilgit-Baltistan (62), Azad Jammu & Kashmir (8), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (28), Punjab (12), Sindh (4), and Balochistan (8). In all these locations, government-owned guesthouses, motels, and land have been deteriorating over the years and have long ago lost the charm and quality they once had to entice tourists wanting to explore spectacular and remote locations at an affordable price.
Gilgit-Baltistan is at the top of every traveller's list so is an obvious drawcard for potential investors. Frequently described as 'heaven on earth', with spectacular peaks with over a hundred rising to 7,000 metres and five on the list of the 14 highest peaks in the world (the eight-thousanders), extraordinary valleys, glaciers, fascinating culture and welcoming people, it provides the most outstanding tourism potential. But tourism in Gilgit-Baltistan is falling behind where it should be due to a need for decent, affordable accommodation and environmentally appropriate facilities in places of outstanding beauty. 
In July 2020, after the government decided in the pre-COVID times of 2019, the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) closed its guesthouses and motels in the northern areas citing huge continuous losses, and terminated employees' services. These closures devastated local communities, tourists, and those who travelled to these more remote areas for work-related activities. Hundreds of permanent staff found themselves jobless and without payment of their outstanding dues of provident fund dues and gratuities. The properties fell further into disrepair, and the local tourism industry suffered.
Not everyone can afford the luxury of 5-star hotels, although these stunning hotels are a drawcard for those with a higher budget. It is worth mentioning that hotels like the Serena Hotels at Shigar Fort and Khaplu are a testament to the foresight and vision of the Aga Khan Foundation. These two remarkable properties preserve the heritage of the ancient forts and capitalise on the local culture, providing an outstanding visitor experience, high-quality accommodation, impressive service from well-trained staff, and significantly supporting the local economy by reinvesting in community-based projects. Other Serena Hotels in the north, new 5-star properties like Ambiance in Hunza, and smaller locally-owned boutique properties catering to the mid-market are frequently fully booked throughout the tourist season indicating that investment in tourism is becoming an attractive proposition which benefits all stakeholders. 
However, finding decent, affordable accommodation in some of the more remote but spectacular areas remains difficult. Filling this gap by breathing new life into these neglected state-owned properties will boost the local economy enormously. Most local people are excited about the new opportunities for participating in the economic revival of their areas and are eager to start earning a decent income again. 



The closure of the PTDC guesthouses and motels has meant that locals who depended on these facilities for their income have remained unemployed or had to leave home to find work in other parts of the country. The local economies suffered overall as tourists headed to other areas with better facilities. This downturn underscores the urgency and necessity of kick-starting sustainable tourism and investment in neglected state-owned properties. Revival of tourism and bringing these properties back to life is a cause that resonates positively with the communities who want progress. 
However, it's perplexing to see elements in the tourism sector in Gilgit-Baltistan spreading propaganda and misinformation, potentially keeping local people impoverished and depriving them of the economic benefits of investment. The growth potential is immense in hospitality jobs, new businesses for tour guides, craft markets, food outlets, and construction workers. These new possibilities can bring about significant progress for local communities, a prospect that should inspire hope and optimism. No doubt the criticism will fade as quickly as it appeared as communities better understand the benefits. People want progress and prosperity, not disruption.
Similar initiatives under SIFC's Green Tourism banner have already been announced in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In March 2022, the federal government ceded control of 17 PTDC motels and two tracts of lands allocated for new motels to the KP government in line with the 18th Constitutional Amendment. The properties were already closed and generating no income. All desperately needed renovation and good management and were available to lease out to investors. A new entity under the guidance of SIFC has now leased the properties for 30 years, with a 40 per cent share in their profits going to the KP Government. The properties under the new agreement are located in Naran, Balakot, Chattar Plain, Ayubia, Booni, Bumburet, Garam Chashma, Mastuj, Chitral, Birmogh Lasht, Saidu Sharif, Besham, Miandam, Baran Kallay, Kalam, Chakdarra, Panakot and Torkham. Many of these locations currently have nowhere for visitors to stay so at most, they are receiving day visitors. Re-opening these hotels will be such a bonus for locals in terms of employment and business income, and for tourists seeking new travel experiences.
Although fewer in number, the unique opportunities in Azad Jammu & Kashmir with its astounding scenery at every turn in the road; Punjab and its ancient heritage and cultural sites, along with the vast Lal Suhanra National Park; Sindh's awe-inspiring World Heritage sites and coastal areas; and the stunning Makran coastline, Hingol National Park, and interior of Balochistan, are not being overlooked. These regions hold immense potential for tourism development, sparking optimism for the future of tourism in Pakistan.
The emphasis of Green Tourism is on sustainable tourism. Sustainable tourism is not just about the environment. It encompasses positive and negative economic, social, and environmental impacts, which new and renovated developments must fully consider, and for tourists to be responsible visitors.
In the words of the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, in a video address to the UN World Tourism Organization (of which Pakistan is a Member State), General Assembly, in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, in October 2023, "Tourism brings progress. As one of the biggest sectors in the global economy, it has great power to bridge cultures, generate new opportunities, and promote sustainable development." 
According to The World Tourism Organization (UN Tourism), the specialised United Nations agency responsible for promoting responsible, sustainable, and universally accessible tourism, tourism can drive economic growth, inclusive development, and environmental sustainability. Pakistan is a member state of UN Tourism, so its guidelines are considered in tourism planning. Their recommendations show how sustainable tourism development requires the informed participation of all relevant stakeholders and strong political leadership to ensure broad participation and consensus building. The guidelines recommend that sustainable tourism projects advise:
▪   Make optimal use of environmental resources that constitute a key element in tourism development, maintaining essential ecological processes and helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity.
▪  Respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, conserve their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values, and contribute to intercultural understanding and tolerance.
▪  Ensure viable, long-term economic operations, providing fairly distributed socioeconomic benefits to all stakeholders, including stable employment and income-earning opportunities and social services to host communities and contributing to poverty alleviation.
The SIFC Green Tourism Initiative strongly reflects every one of the World Tourism Organization's guidelines and the statement of the United Nations Secretary-General. Tourism is one of the most significant sectors of the global economy, and now is the time for real action rather than just talking about it. Investment and fostering sustainable practices in Pakistan's tourism sector will stimulate local and national economic growth, create jobs, and promote cross-cultural exchange, benefiting investors and local communities. Let's make it happen and do it right!
In May 2024, Lieutenant General Hassan Azhar Hayat (R), who most recently served as Commander of XI Corps, Peshawar, before retirement, was appointed Managing Director of Green Tourism. He is respected and well-liked by diverse stakeholders including local communities across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for his collaborative and inclusive approach to many aspects of life in the province, including his remarkable success in revitalising tourism. The list of projects undertaken during his tenure is substantial but includes the renovation, preservation and promotion of ancient heritage and cultural sites and museums; implementing adventure sports activities in the merged districts; the greening of Peshawar; cleaning up and rejuvenation of famous old bazaars; establishment of new local tourism authorities in remote tourism locations; and encouraging investment in the province’s tourism and development projects. He is an ideal choice to take Green Tourism forward nationally to raise tourism to the level of the economic powerhouse it has the potential to be.
In developing the Green Tourism Initiative, SIFC has conducted intensive research to assess the gaps and opportunities and used foresight and visioning—a process frequently used by potential investor countries. The same approach has been applied to all SIFC Key Sector Initiatives—agriculture, minerals and mining, energy, and information technology. Each of the five initiatives has been developed with a forward-looking approach that will attract investors and ensure economic progress.
The first year of SIFC's operation has highlighted the importance of foreign and local investment in growing the critical sectors of the economy. As SIFC moves into its second year, with the support and involvement of all stakeholders, and by maintaining the momentum, there will be a significant transformation as substantial foreign direct investments currently being negotiated under SIFC reach fruition. This surely has to be a cause for a birthday celebration.


The writer is an Australian Disaster Management and Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Advisor who lives in Islamabad. She consults for Government and UN agencies and has previously worked at both ERRA and NDMA.
E-mail: [email protected]
 

Jennifer McKay

The writer is Australian Disaster Management and Civil-Military Relations Consultant, based in Islamabad where she consults for Government and UN agencies. She has also worked with ERRA and NDMA.

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