In January, Pakistani Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry announced a new visa policy to revive the country’s tourism industry. This measure will provide an e-visa option to 175 countries and a visa-on-arrival to 50 other countries. Moreover, the minister also announced policy decrees toward developing the country’s image and making tourism a vibrant sector capable of achieving economic growth while elevating the brand image of the country.
With the ascension of Imran Khan to power last year, Islamabad seems keen to improve its soft power capital. Utilizing cultural diplomacy more often than before, the Pakistani leadership is in a frenzied move to build a positive image of the country. The emphasis on the tourism sector, therefore, aligns with Khan’s reform agenda, which consists of optimizing the use of national resources and making the economic machine work for citizens.
There is no doubt that culture, cultural assets, and cultural services have intrinsic worth. Thus, foreign policy efforts that mirror cultural capital are by default enhancing the nation’s soft power. The recent opening of the Kartarpur corridor exemplifies such action. It also strikes two birds with one stone: By introducing a visa-free initiative for the Sikh community for cross-border pilgrimages, Pakistan’s premier boosted tourism while also displaying a pro-peace stance. Therefore, through well-articulated cultural-diplomacy efforts, Islamabad turned the historical and religious legacy of a toxic relationship with India into a positive domestic and foreign policy item.
It is noteworthy that Pakistan hosts six UNESCO world heritage sites. While the country’s history is centered around early Islam, Sufi, and Mughal artistic monuments, Pakistan is also home to Hindu temples and Buddhist relics combined with rich natural landscapes. The representation of such rich offerings needs the power of social media in order to create a “force of attraction” in the 21st century.
In this context, the government’s multi-track efforts, which allow nonofficial channels (travel bloggers and vloggers) to participate to the promotion of the country, is yet another tangible step toward positive nation branding. Recently there has been a surge of international travel vloggers promoting Pakistan. Two key personalities are Eva Zu Beck from Poland and Mark Wiens (Migrationology) from the United States. Through their social media content, the bloggers showcase the colorful and vibrant diversity of Pakistan’s natural landscapes, people, culture, music and food.
Understanding the importance of international influence, the Khan government welcomed Eva Zu Beck via Twitter, expressing its approval for actions that help convey a truthful image of the country. Similarly, the government of Pakistan’s Twitter account posted about Trevor James’ (The Food Ranger) visit to the country right after the announcement of the visa policy.
It is also important to highlight that the security situation assuredly affects positive nation branding. According to the Global Terrorism Index 2018, deaths related to terrorism in Pakistan have decreased by 64 percent. In a related development, British Airways announced that it will resume flights this year to Pakistan. According to Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, this aligns with the incumbent government’s efforts to stymie terrorism.
Successful diplomacy is absolutely critical in dealing with some of Pakistan’s problems. Demographics and an ill economy require creative efforts that depart from the one-dimensional approach previously. The country’s image over the years was dented by international media focused on corruption, insecurity, terrorist threats, and Afghan war refugee issues.
Additionally, as the protracted conflict over Kashmir remains unresolved, the recent Indo-Pakistan clash following the Pulwama attack came at a critical time when Khan’s government is at the height of an international charm offensive, trying to revitalize trade and diplomatic ties with many nations around the world. Khan’s calm and calculated conduct toward the issue was a necessity to achieve positive public opinion.
Khan’s statements were measured and offered going back to the negotiating table as the only way to bring peace and stability to the region. Coupled with his “pro-peace” gesture to release the captured Indian pilot, Khan positioned Pakistan and its diplomatic efforts to be more pronounced than ever in the geopolitical arena.
The most significant reason for Khan’s success is that he lent an attentive ear and expressed his commitment to make a positive impact. His policy initiatives built the narrative of an “emerging” and “new Pakistan,” which resonated well with the electorate, and constituted the backbone of his economic policies and diplomatic overtures since then.
Easing visa restrictions is a concrete step to sharpen Pakistan’s soft power and national brand. It is noteworthy that the government is no longer the sole initiator for such efforts. Nonstate actors are becoming major player in this domain via the astute use of culture and media. As a result, Pakistan is in the limelight on the global stage; this time for the right reasons.
Hajira Maryam is a researcher at the TRT World Research Centre.