The Controversy of Pakistan: Should I Go or Stay?

by Isabella Troconis

Usually when people hear the word “Pakistan”, negative ideas and images instantly come into their heads. Some people have even gone as far as coining ridiculous advice like, “If  a country name ends with “tan,” you shouldn’t go there.” Behind the smokescreen that the media has portrayed over the past thirteen years, Pakistan is an enchanting country with many natural beauties and historical monuments waiting for you.

One of Pakistans lovely sites Shalimar Gardens, Lahore
One of Pakistan’s lovely sites – Shalimar Gardens, Lahore. Photo Courtesy of Isabella Troconis

It definitely has more to offer than the terrorists and AK-47s, that seem to be all the media can show sometimes. Instead, start to picture new gastronomies waiting for you, and enough cultural sights to keep any art lover busy for a lifetime.

Beautiful Country & People

Pakistan has a wide range of hiking peaks and is home to some of the Mughal Empire’s most impressive monuments, but the most incredible feature of Pakistan is its people’s hospitality. Also, it is important to point out that Pakistanis in big cities usually speak fluent English as it is one of the official languages in the Islamic Republic. Knowing this, tourists should bear in mind that traveling the country might not be as difficult as first thought. 

Before visiting, read about the country’s culture, history, and politics to shake off previous conceptions of the country’s bad press and start to build a new picture from scratch. By the end of your trip, you will see things differently and understand Pakistani culture from a different point of view.  

Where To Go & Where To Avoid

In terms of security and safety, like in any developing country, there are some areas to avoid for both locals and foreigners. In Pakistan, those areas are the Tribal areas, Kashmir, and Baluchistan. Islamabad is surprisingly calm but full of security checkpoints greeted by officers armed with assault rifles. These checkpoints are mainly located on major access points and avenues near government offices, embassies, and tourist attractions. The funny part is that they all have signs saying “sorry for the inconvenience.” Surprisingly, the Pakistani capital feels safer and more under control than some cities in Latin America. 

Lahore does not have as many police checkpoints as Islamabad, but it is still safe. People there are more surprised by seeing foreign visitors than in the capital, perhaps because it is a city where the mindsets of urban and rural Pakistan come together. However, Karachi, with its more than 20 million inhabitants and an overwhelming sense of importance, can be quite intimidating. It is recommendable that you stay in touch with a local that is able to show you the safer areas. First time visitors might relate Karachi with Mexico City as it is densely populated and polluted.

Fort Lahore, Pakistan

Fort Lahore

How to Dress Appropriately

Despite of being an Islamic country, women can feel at ease when wearing jeans and a loose shirt while they are visiting the major cities of Pakistan, like Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi. Inhabitants from these metropolitan areas are far more exposed to Western influence and are more accustomed to foreign visitors. However, women can encounter penetrating stares from locals. This phenomenon might have something to do with cultural differences. It isn’t strange for locals to approach tourists and ask for a picture or two – especially when you are a woman. Curiously, Pakistani women are more interested in having their picture taken with a Western woman than with a Western man. And if a Pakistani man were to approach a Western woman to ask for a photo with her, he would ask it in a very respectful manner. 

A Special Note for Women Travelers: Pakistan might not be the safest travel destination in Asia, but women travelers may feel safer than in neighboring India. According to Islam, women are both protected and respected. This prevalent religion also means that women should be aware of their clothing and try to carry a pashmina to cover their faces in case they visit a shrine or similar venue. 

Characteristics of Pakistani People

Once you arrive in Pakistan, you will notice that its people are welcoming and interested in your background, interests, and hobbies. Pakistani will do their best to make your trip so enjoyable that you will want to come back. And even if plans do not turn out as expected, they will always have an ace or two up their sleeves to make it happen. For example, Islamabad has more or less two black-outs per day. If you happen to go to a Museum, no worries about not being able to visit it when the power is out on the day you plan your visit. The museum staff will make sure you come by later by letting you know the modified opening hours for that day. Just relax and do not take your plans and schedule to seriously; in the end, everything will work out. 

What is more, Pakistanis love to invite you over dinner, tea, or any occasion that involves eating copiously. As a guest, they invest all their efforts in making you feel special and like their top priority. For example, they will offer you cutlery despite the fact that they don’t use it themselves. Also, they appreciate it when visitors bring chocolates or any other kind of sweet of an internationally recognized brand. As most Pakistanis are Muslim, bringing alcohol may be perceived as a careless gesture. If you are still keen on bringing some drinks, tea is a great option. Pakistanis enjoy drinking Chai with milk powder after every meal. 

Pakistanis are very curious about any visitor’s background. This means that during any occasion, they will ask about your life back in your country, your culture, your love life, and even your salary! Do not be offended as they ask the same questions to their acquaintances and peers on a daily basis. 

The Badshahi Mosque

The Badshahi Mosque

You’re a Human Not a Tourist

Pakistanis still don’t perceive foreign visitors as walking Dollar signs. Bazaar merchants do not set an overwhelming higher price to foreign tourists compared to those set for locals like in other countries such as Egypt and Turkey – who are used to larger flows of foreigners. This does not mean that tourists shouldn’t bargain for a lower bid, but it is less likely that your purchase will be a rip-off. Also, the fact that foreigners are treated similarly to locals and that most Pakistanis in big cities speak English adds another layer of ease and security. 

The kind of insecurity that tourists face is different from other destinations. Visitors should not worry about being robbed or kidnapped, but more about areas where Talibans or extremists live – such as, Peshawar or the Tribal areas. For this reason, it is always advisable to keep a low profile and be informed before deciding to go to Pakistan.

Do Your Research Before You go

As in any foreign country, it is always better to know locals, especially in this country, as its people are one of kind when it comes to hospitality. You should also read and then read some more to get rid of all misconceptions about Pakistan and create interesting questions to ask locals once in Pakistan. 

How to Get a Tourist Visa

Getting a tourist visa for Pakistan is not easy. Either you hire a tourist agency that will do all your paperwork for you or you ask a friend to “officially” invite you. In order to ask for a traveler’s visit to Pakistan, you need to submit an invitation letter written by a Pakistani citizen along with your photo ID, application form, and a fee – which varies depending on your citizenship. All these errands are done by mail and take about six weeks. At first, the whole process might sound like never-ending red-tape, but don’t get frustrated because Pakistan accepts more than 90 percent of the visa applications!

Start planning your trip to Pakistan now!