To Whom it May Concern:
My name is Ousman Noor, I am a British national and Overseas Citizen of Pakistan. I am a barrister at Kings Cross Barristers in London with expertise in immigration and nationality law and I also work as a Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of London where I teach law students immigration and nationality law. Over the past 8 years, I have worked to secure visas and residence permits for individuals and families from over a hundred different nations. This background has given me considerable knowledge and experience of the laws, policies and procedures surrounding migration and border control. The purpose of this letter is to express my concern and disappointment with the process of securing a tourist visa to visit Pakistan for non-Pakistani nationals.
Simply put, the process of securing a tourist visa to visit Pakistan for UK and EU nationals is backwards and self-defeating. An immediate overhaul of this system is one of the simplest and most beneficial things that the Pakistani government can do to benefit the country. Not only would it assist Pakistan in generating potentially $billions/annum in tourist revenue, but it would massively improve the image and perception of Pakistan around the world.
I was pleased to read the recent news that the Pakistani government has indeed decided to overhaul the system of securing a visa to visit Pakistan. It seems that the government have not yet specified when the new system will commence. However, I wish to write this letter in order to highlight the most obvious failings of the existing system and provide guidance on how the new system should be designed to genuinely achieve its goal of improving tourism to Pakistan without comprising on security.
Over the past few weeks, I have been providing guidance to two friends of French nationality who have aspired to visit Pakistan as tourists for 9 days. From me, they have heard much about the incredible and diverse cuisine, the epic scenery and fascinating history of Pakistan. They were inspired to see my country of origin themselves, to visit Islamabad, Lahore and the Kaghan Valley and enjoy a unique and memorable holiday. However, the process of them securing a visa almost put them off entirely. Having endured the lengthy preparation process, both have submitted their tourist visa applications and both now anxiously await news of whether or not they will be permitted entry.
In order to be permitted entry as a tourist to Pakistan, they have had to submit the following documents:
a) A completed 6-page application form in which they give answers to a wide range of intimate and detailed questions.
b) Evidence from their employer in the form of a letter-headed letter confirming their job position and employer’s address
c) Evidence of their accommodation including utility bills, driver’s license or council tax documents
d) Copies of their bank statements
e) A signed and dated letter from a Pakistani national, living in Pakistan, confirming that they are willing to sponsor the tourist visit. This letter cannot be from an Overseas Pakistani Citizen. This means the person who is writing the letter is extremely unlikely to have ever met the person who they are sponsoring, but must nonetheless do it anyway. On the contrary, the Overseas Pakistani Citizen, who is more likely to have met the person making the tourist visit, is forbidden from sponsoring the visit.
f) Their actual passport and also a copy of their passport.
They then had to attend a visa application centre, which was a long distance away from their homes. An organised day off from work was required in order to make the journey. Upon arriving, they waited in a queue for several hours for their ticket number to be called. Finally, they submitted their documents, pay a fee of £51 and got told that their application may take up to 4-6 weeks. During this period, the visa application centre holds on to their passport, meaning that they are now deprived of this important document and are unable to travel outside their country, even if an emergency arose, they would be incapable of travelling without their passport.
In summary, the process of securing a tourist visa to Pakistan is a painfully slow, bureaucratic, stressful, tedious and exhausting process. It acts as a very strong deterrent to tourists who genuinely wish to experience a holiday in Pakistan and spend their money inside the country.
I wish to put things in perspective. As French nationals, as with most EU nationals, these individuals have many alternative options available to them as stress-free holiday destinations. UK nationals have the choice of around 170 countries that they can travel to either visa-free or with visa upon arrival. This means that, as a holiday destination, Pakistan is a much more difficult destination to visit than over 170 other destinations. Frankly, there is a very slim chance that the UK or EU national would decide to visit Pakistan if looking for an easy place to place to visit and spend their money. Only the very few, very dedicated and very persevering tourist would consider it worthwhile to go through the process of securing a tourist visa to Pakistan.
There is no good justification for the complexity of the existing tourist visa system. Firstly, I am fully aware of the ‘tit-for-tat’ argument that having onerous visa requirements for British and EU nationals is a ‘fair’ way to reciprocate the difficulty that Pakistanis experience in securing tourist visas to come to the UK or EU. This is a weak argument and completely ignores economic reality. The risk that the UK or EU national would seek to secure a tourist visa to Pakistan with the ulterior motive of seeking employment in Pakistan is non-existent. There is, therefore, no justification for requiring tourists from the UK or EU to submit evidence from their employer confirming that they are in employment, nor is there justification for requiring the provision of their bank statements. Secondly, while national security is always a primary concern in the monitoring of border control, the existing system of providing tourist visas does nothing to improve security or reduce risk. The provision of a ‘sponsor letter’ from a Pakistani national achieves practically nothing in reducing any genuine potential security risk from a tourist visiting Pakistan, nor do the majority of questions asked on the application form serve any purpose in mitigating any potential risk. Any security risk in the provision of a tourist visa can and should be mitigated simply by the provision the individual’s passport and the answering of specific targeted questions relating to security issues designed by those who have genuine knowledge and expertise on security issues. In summary, the new system of securing a tourist visa to Pakistan should be as simple as providing the applicant’s passport and the answering of specific security related questions. All of the other requirements are pointless, a waste of time and only serve to deter genuine tourists from visiting Pakistan and contributing to the Pakistani economy.
Throughout my life and travels to dozens of countries, I have met many people around the world who have expressed a real desire to visit Pakistan and enjoy its beautiful culture, heritage and landscapes. It is imperative that Pakistan embraces this opportunity to open the country to the world, to show people our culture of hospitality and to put Pakistan on the map as a leading destination for tourism. Not only would Pakistan prosper from the unbounded potential in tourist revenue, but people all around the world will come to view Pakistan as a truly open and positive country. While the recent pledge to overhaul the system is commendable, it is essential that the new system serves its purpose by adopting a progressive and sensible attitude towards the application process. Until then, the existing system only serves a massive own-goal for Pakistan.