“Pakistan is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. It has an extensive history, rich culture, unique heritage, incredibly diverse landscapes and breathtaking natural beauty,” he says. “But, Pakistan’s image has severely deteriorated over the past few years due to instability in the country and many countries declaring Pakistan as unsafe and dangerous to visit. Foreign tourists stopped visiting and even local people are afraid to travel around the country for recreation and leisure while some simply prefer to spend holidays outside Pakistan.” While abroad in Germany, Greece and Austria, Saqib met fellow European travel enthusiasts. “I’ve been told by fellow travellers that their priority is to explore and see their own country first, and then go anywhere else because they want to invest their money in their own country instead of spending their money abroad and they want to understand who they are and where they come from before going to learn about others.” This perplexed and disheartened Saqib.
“That’s not fair and it really hurts me. Pakistan is home to beautiful, hospitable, generous and peace-loving people, and is a land of spectacular and stunning places, but it lacks good branding. The country deserves to be explored, even by its own people at the very least.” This inspired Saqib to begin something astounding.
In mid-February, Saqib set off on what he calls a “journey consisting of a chain of journeys” to canvas, photograph, and upload the entirety of Pakistan to Wikimedia Commons, and Wikivoyage in an effort to alter Pakistan’s dubious image. Already, Saqib has traveled to the Kirthar National Park in southwest Pakistan, and created its article on Wikivoyage, which surely to be the first of many new additions to the online travel guide.
“I strongly believe a travel guide is something that can motivate travellers to travel to Pakistan and I think Wikivoyage can be a very useful and powerful tool and it can play a very positive role in helping promote the tourism in the country. That’s why I decided to show a unbiased and true image of Pakistan through Wikivoyage. Saqib points to other countries that are deemed dangerous and their equally – if not more – tenuous reputations that have better travel coverage than Pakistan. “There hasn’t been an updated travel guide on Pakistan since 2008,” says Saqib about the travel publisher, Lonely Planet. “And even their website that references Pakistani destinations is now incomplete and out of date,” he laments, “they still publish about more dangerous countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and many African countries.” Therefore, in a culmination of negative press coverage, and lack of current travel information (aside from the all-too-common travel advisory), Pakistan’s image suffers mercilessly.
Saqib is up for a herculean task. “This is going to be the most ambitious and adventurous expedition for me. I’m planning to travel around Pakistan and visit each and every part of it so I can learn about my country and would able to gather detailed and accurate information for our articles. I know this is a huge task and may take a lot of time but sooner or later, I believe I’ll accomplish my mission.”
There is also a competitiveness that motivates Saqib. “Similar South Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Iran all have good travel coverage by traditional travel guides whereas Pakistan hasn’t, even though the country is as beautiful and important as those other countries in the region are. Pakistan surely deserves the same equal coverage being enjoyed by all those other countries.” “Frankly,” he confesses, “I’m envious of the coverage of all those countries in travel guides; and especially by the coverage of India both in travel guides as well on Wikipedia, but I hope to at least help Pakistan compete on Wikivoyage through improving the coverage of Pakistan.”
Saqib, who divides his time between Dubai and his hometown of Karachi, began editing Wikipedia back in 2007. Two years later in 2009, he began his attempt at establishing a Wikimedia chapter in Pakistan. Initial interest was great, as noted by the first Wikimeetup in Pakistan that got coverage by the local press (even Jimmy Wales weighed in his approval on its project page), but plans were soon stalled by a depreciation in interest, time and resources. However, in 2012, Saqib managed to regroup with his fellow Wikipedians, and created the Wikimedia User Group Pakistan that works on a variety of different projects, including Urdu language Wikipedia.
“The good news is that currently the group’s membership is growing and we have many new subscribers in our mailing list”. He is anxiously awaiting for The ‘Affcom’ – a nickname for ‘the Affiliations Committee, the Wikimedia Community Committee entrusted with advising the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees on the approval of new movement affiliates,’ as its page on Meta-Wiki states – to officially recognize the Pakistan Wikimedia User Group, with eventual hopes for establishing a chapter . This is encouraging for Wikimedians in Pakistan, hoping to become further integrated within the Wikimedia community.
To initiate his journey, he started where we all begin – home. “I’ve recently contributed significantly to the Karachi article on Wikivoyage,” which, he notes, is now one of two Pakistani “Guide Status” articles and is a featured article candidate as well, the other being on the ancient ruins of the 5,000-year-old city of Mohenjo-daro (Mohenjo-daro recently made the feature article of Wikivoyage as well). On Wikivoyage, “Guide Status” is analogous to the “Good Article” rating on Wikipedia. Saqib wants this ranking to be abundant on Wikivoyage on articles about Pakistan. “I hope I’ll be able to fill each and every Wikivoyage article about Pakistan with a plethora of useful information, and make them ‘Guide’ status”.
The initiative to document his country will lead him to places even he has never been such as precarious rugged mountainous Balochistan and war-torn dangerous Federally Administered Tribal Areas near Afghanistan. “Pakistan is really a huge country,” he asserts, “I intend to first cover the region of Sindh, which alone is 600km north to south and 450 km from east to west; I’ll visit a few cities and then come back to Karachi, and then again travel to few more places and come back home. This way, Sindh shall be covered in few trips.” Also, Saqib intends to head into the 8,000 metered high snow-clad peaks of Gilgit-Balistan, which is a tourist hotspot for adventurers and is sometimes dubbed as “Heaven on Earth” for its picturesque and breathtaking scenery.
Of course, despite picturesque surroundings, safety is never to be overlooked while traveling in Pakistan. “I’m very much concerned about the safety,” he confesses. “I’m living in what many people consider a ‘dangerous’ country, but when I went to places like Sri Lanka, which is also considered dangerous from the Western point of view, I found it quite safe. However, countries – both western and non-western – can be unsafe and dangerous for travel and I’m sure Pakistan is not as dangerous as its being depicted by media except few parts of the country. I’m still willing to take this task and do the journey for the sake of accomplishing my mission. I believe nothing can be ever achieved without enthusiasm and dedication.”
Saqib disapproves of Pakistan’s current reputation for safety and security. “Travel advisory sites will say not to travel to a country because they consolidate the relative safety of all regions into one sum class: safe and unsafe”. But Wikivoyage approaches this differently with a “Stay Safe” section that states the safety concerns of each region. Saqib intends to personally edit these sections, showing that these places may actually be safe for tourists, dispelling popular perception of imminent peril.
Although Saqib will be traveling alone, he won’t be for the duration of his photographic odyssey. “I’ll be joined by my friends living in some of those areas I travel, well-wishers, and -of course- fellow Wikimedians. I have plans to arrange Wikimedia meet-ups in some of the biggest cities in Pakistan”. His journey has even warranted boarding from the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation, permitting him to stay at accommodations across the country- free of charge. And as for transportation, Saqib answers:
“Because most travelers to any country rely on public transportation, so too will I need to rely on public transportation to gain actual knowledge on the quality and network of public transit across the country,” effectively opting out from using his own vehicle to sojourn with. “I want to answer questions like ‘How can I get from one place to another – by bus, by train, or auto-rickshaw?”.
These are some of the questions he intends to answer for future tourists to Pakistan. Tourists, he hopes, make Pakistan their next travel destination very soon.
Michael Guss, Communications Volunteer