The young man at the airport approached me with a nervous smile and a hint of hesitation. He was from the Ministry of Tourism, he explained. Would I be so kind as to fill out a survey on my stay in Pakistan? The previous week had been eventful, to say the least. I had landed in Lahore on Thursday, Dec 27. As I left the airport for my hotel my cell phone pinged with an SMS from my wife: "Bhutto dead in Rawalpindi blast." The following few days are a bit of a blur, and then on New Year's Eve I fell sick with some intestinal bug that took two days to beat. "I'm not sure I'm the best person to help you," I told the man. But he insisted, and so I was soon filling out the three-page form, which mixed statistics gathering (nationality, places I visited, number of nights I spent in hotels) with questions like "During your stay which features did you like most?"
The hardest two questions came at the end. "Would you please like to identify the problems you faced during the trip?" the first of them asked. "You want me to be truthful?" I asked the survey man, who hovered over me to make sure I didn't skip any questions. "Of course," he said, smiling. "Information will help us improve. We need to hear the truth."
The truth is Pakistan could be should be an incredible tourist destination. It offers wonderful Mughal ruins, evocative British colonial architecture, world-class hiking and climbing in the Karakoram Mountains, gorgeous rolling green meadows, captivating culture, great food (especially the fruits and kebabs), and some of the best carpet shops in South Asia. Unfortunately, it is also regularly described as the world's most dangerous country which, while more intriguing than slogans like "Malaysia, Truly Asia" or "I Feel Slovenia," is not exactly an inducement for people to visit.
It's not like Pakistan's tourism ministry hasn't been trying. The survey I was filling out is part of a two-year-long project that will wrap up this year. Pakistan has a great tourism website. And the country even decided to make last year "Destination Pakistan 2007." But there's the rub. Last year was one of the most troubled in Pakistan's history. Terrorist attacks became a weekly, sometimes daily, occurrence. President Pervez Musharraf threw out the Supreme Court Chief Justice triggering massive street protests. The Swat Valley, a picturesque tourist spot renowned for its skiing and trout fishing, is now, as my colleague Aryn Baker so vividly described just two months ago, Taliban Central. And to end the year, the leading opposition figure was assassinated.
Even the most beautiful country in the world is going to struggle to air its charms with all that going on. The problems I faced during my trip? "Rioting, looting, burning of shops and tires along roads, shooting, general chaos, mayhem and insecurity and a very bad stomach ailment," I wrote. I looked up and saw that the survey man, who was waiting patiently for me to finish the forms, was no longer smiling.
The next question read: "Would you please like to give suggestions for improving tourist facilities in Pakistan?" "How do you think I should answer this?" I asked the man, "Pakistan has so many troubles it's not fair to complain about particular tourist facilities." He shook his head and agreed that there had been a lot of unrest. "It's only 10% or 20% of the people," he said. "The rest of us are very welcoming." I nodded in agreement Pakistanis are indeed warm, hospitable and generous and lamented that he had a tough job. He nodded: "It's a struggle."
We both looked at the last question again and talked a bit more about what might help. Then, with a smile from my new friend, I wrote in: "Democracy and Stability." Easy to write, of course. Harder to make real.