ATM2023: PIA Missing In Action

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DUBAI: Swarming with energy and diversity, traders, exhibitors, visitors, students and tourists from all over the world made their way through traffic, to attend the 30th edition of the 4-day Arabian Travel Market (ATM) in Dubai from May 1 to May 4, 2023.

With a tiny but mighty presence, the humble Pakistani pavilion stood tall amidst grand exhibits trying to make its mark. And in the presence of all national and international airliners representing their respective countries, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA)’s notable absence was deeply felt, especially by the Pakistani exhibitors.

Speaking to The Express Tribune, tourism veteran with 50 years of experience and Chief Executive Officer of Zeb Travels, Khawaja Jahan Zeb said, “I have been visiting these trade exhibitions for over 30 years. Many of us have. I have come with just a briefcase in hand and sometimes with an individual stall of our own, because it is a passion.”

With respect to PIA, Zeb said, back in the day the airliner had a large tourism department that would promote Pakistan all over the world.

“Now, the PIA tourism department no longer exists. It is the national airliner, but look, even today it is missing,” he said, adding that, “I don’t know what the issue is, perhaps it’s money, perhaps it’s bureaucracy, maybe it’s just inefficiency and lack of planning. Some 15-20 years ago, PIA had launched an air safari and it performed wonderfully! I was on the inaugural flight and we had tourists all the way from Japan!”

He lamented political instability in the country saying, “But things change so rapidly and unpredictably in Pakistan that officers in position don’t know if they will be in the same office the next day to reap the benefits of their hard work. They don’t even know if their successors will carry on the work…”

Chief Operating Officer for Hashoo Group Hotels, Haseeb Gardezi added that, “We are all very excited to be here under one banner, but a big piece of the tourism puzzle is missing. Without the presence of an airline ensuring people that we can provide convenient routes to all the amazing destinations being showcased, how will people even start planning their journeys?”

Touching upon the fact that this was the third time in 30 years that the Pakistani government had put up a pavilion at the ATM, Zeb said, “Thank God, the government finally realised the importance of putting up a pavilion here but they don’t have a vision. Normally, they just waste the budget elsewhere. Look at all the other stalls, even Sri Lanka that just defaulted has a pavilion worth visiting. You can tell that they have hired professionals who understand the tenets of tourism. Promoting the country is the duty of the state. If the government hires the right people, and not someone from the food department, or consults with private stakeholders, the face of the industry will change. It has the potential to transform the economy of Pakistan.”

While there were throngs of people crowding at the pavilion, Gardezi pointed out that “Our collective presence here gives them a chance to interact with a small piece of Pakistan. And I hope we continue to band together, put differences aside and put the greater good of the country at the fore.”

“How is anyone supposed to know what all Pakistan hosts when it isn’t being promoted?” lamented Tahir Baloch, COO of Meezab Group.

He told The Express Tribune that Pakistan is a treasure trove of unexplored potential and there are only 14 stalls representing the entire country.

“We are here to show people that Pakistan is an attractive tourist destination, and you can see there are so many people constantly asking questions and becoming excited with the prospect of visiting. People know we have the mightiest peaks, the most beautiful sunsets, but they are all concerned about the political and security situation. Security is a key challenge and the government must take measures to ensure security and those measures should be promoted through campaigns across the globe. There is only so much we can say to assure people.”

A defaulting Sri Lanka,
a star at ATM

Managing director for the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau told The Express Tribune that despite struggling economically, it is extremely important for Sri Lanka to be present at the ATM. “Tourism is our third largest foreign exchange earner in the country.”

Hit continuously, first by the pandemic, then a political crisis and finally a sovereign default, the MD said, “We are finally bouncing back and our aim here today is to minimise any negative publicity that Sri Lanka may have in India, Europe and the Middle East. We have 50 stalls here today and hope to remind people of the beauty that Sri Lanka holds. We hope to bring 1.55 million tourists to the country. Until April, we have had about 450,000 people visit the country, so we are on track.”

Sustainability and growth

Sustainability took centre stage with most exhibits across the Dubai Trade Centre competing for the coveted new “Most Sustainable Stand” award introduced by ATM this year.

RX (Reed Exhibitions), the show’s organiser, has taken a pledge to become net zero by 2050. ATM 2023 featured over 2,000 exhibitors with over 34,000 attendees from more than 150 countries.

The grand pavilion for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia spread across a vast area of the trade centre pulled the attention of innovators, travel gurus, students and tourists from all across.

A 16-year-old student from Dubai stood by the NEOM stall thrilled to explain just how wondrous this project was, how ‘the line’ was the talk of the town and how it was sure to win the sustainability award this year.

On the other hand was AlUla, a project that had innovators gleeful with excitement for the millions of possibilities the world of tourism had to offer in the future.

Dubai, however, took the cake proving itself to be a graceful host of diversity, innovation, luxury and panache. This year, the emirate was also crowned the number one global destination in the Tripadvisor Travellers’ Choice Award for the second successive year, cementing its position as the world’s favourite tourist destination.

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