The economic vision for Gwadar centers around the port and associated industrial activity. (For analysis of recent economic developments in the city, see my two previous posts: “Where Gwadar Stands Today” and “Gwadar’s Real Estate Market Picks Up”.)
Details on investments in the city, however, are hard to come by. A recent report quoted Pakistan’s Senate chairman (who hails from Balochistan) as stating that Chinese companies are investing an additional $320 million in the port area and/or economic zone. But there’s no publicly available information on which companies are making investments and in what industries. Meanwhile, real estate development in Gwadar is picking up. And it’s really the main — and perhaps only — industry in which we see Pakistani investment. But real estate investment in Gwadar amounts to mere speculation if there are no significant population inflows to make use of the growing housing supply.
Gwadar, right now, is no Hambantota. The airport, for example, will be funded via a Chinese government grant. And there is no massive empty cricket stadium.
Still, uncertainty surrounding the port and free zone is one reason why the master plan for the city — which is currently being updated — ought to not only have a coherent tourism component, but also incorporate culture.
The benefits of cultural tourism are tangible. It preserves local Baloch culture amid an outside population influx. This, in turn, helps ensure local buy-in and provides a broader narrative for the city. Cultural tourism contributes to a sustainable flow of visitors to the city — moving beyond just first-time explorers and leisure tourists. Rising tourism helps diversify revenue streams and allows Pakistan to deleverage itself off of the port for economic activity.
Before I discuss a cultural tourism strategy for Gwadar, I’ll provide a brief overview of the city’s master plan.
Revisiting The Gwadar Master Plan
A revised version of the Gwadar master plan is expected to be released on August 14 this year. The city’s spatial layout will probably remain the same, with the eastern half dedicated to port and industrial activity and the western half hosting residential communities. And the revised master plan — inspired by port cities like Dubai and Shenzhen — is likely to rely on the same drivers of economic activity in the city envisioned in the original. These drivers are:
- The port — specifically, gateway traffic as well as transshipment and transit trade; and associated services, such as cargo storage and ship repair and maintainance.
- Industrial activity — for example, food processing and materials, like cement and steel.
- Energy — including oil and gas processing.
- Tourism — stretching along the West Bay’s Arabian Sea coast.
The master plan update will incorporate features of urban planning — a focus on livability and sustainability, and the adoption of renewable energy and “smart” technologies — that have become more-or-less standard in the decade-plus since the original master plan was developed.
The Gwadar master plan identifies four potential sources of revenue: the port, industries, energy, and tourism.
The Gwadar port business model is also being updated. Newer ports or terminals are increasingly designed around supply chains.
Given changing tourism dynamics in both Pakistan and many of the international port cities Gwadar’s planners have been inspired by, Gwadar ought to have a robust tourism strategy reflecting contemporary best practices and trends.
There are two major changes to tourism in the region that are relevant to Gwadar.
One, tourism in Pakistan is rising. According to the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation, from 2013 to 2016, annual tourists arrivals tripled from 2013 to 2016, reaching 1.75 million. During the same period, domestic tourists rose by 30 percent, reaching 38.3 million. Domestic tourism is a bigger share of the pie. And its rise is driven by growing disposable incomes, improved security, new highway networks, and the rise in both automobile ownership and cheap inter-city bus services.
Gwadar’s airport is a modest facility, but a new massive airport is being constructed. The runway at the current airport is being extended, enabling it to handle larger aircraft (and bring in larger volumes of visitors). Gwadar is connected to Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, and Balochistan’s largest city, Quetta, via highways. When I visited Gwadar shortly after the opening of the route to Quetta, I saw busses transporting families from interior parts of Balochistan. They appeared to be lower-middle-class or middle-class families who longed to see the sea. (Hospitality and tourism industries in Gwadar ought to appeal to a range of income groups.)
The second major change is that the region is witnessing some compelling alternatives to the Dubai-style bling-based tourism model, with an emphasis on culture and nature. Abu Dhabi’s two major attractions are the Louvre museum and Shaykh Zayed Grand Mosque. Doha has an impressive Museum of Islamic Art. And Oman, which not only has cultural and geographic similarities to Balochistan as well as historic linkages, offers a more authentic, low-key tourist experience, especially in places like the verdant Jabal Akhdar.
Pakistan’s tourism industry is thriving. And in the region, cultural and nature tourism are rising.
The CPEC Long-Term Plan identifies tourism as a growth industry not just in Gwadar, but throughout Pakistan’s largely undeveloped and unexploited Arabian Sea coast. This is smart. Pakistanis are among the top three investors in Dubai real estate, with investments totalling around $8 billion over a recent four-year period. As I mentioned in a previous post, one developer is building a resort-style compound along the West Bay. But this begets the question: when incoming skilled labor and tourists arrive in Gwadar, what are they going to do there?
There are, of course, the virgin beaches in the area. But there needs to be a broader cultural and recreational ecosystem to drive incoming visitors. The benefits are beyond economic. Cultural tourism done right serves as a means of heritage preservation and inclusive narrative building as the city’s population surges and its physical landscape changes. It signals respect to the indigenous population — whose relations with the center have been fraught — preserves their linguistic and physical heritage, and centers them as part of a broader narrative for the city.
A Cultural-Historical Narrative for Gwadar
A cultural-historical narrative for Gwadar ought to mirror its economic ambitions. The city should be positioned as the locus of a new maritime Silk Road linking the Indian Ocean region with China. Pakistan’s official history has largely focused on its Indus Valley civilizations and Mughal heritage, but with the development of its southwest and northeast peripheries through CPEC, there is an opportunity to foster greater appreciation for the country’s other regional cultures.
The Baloch and Baloch subcultures have unique traditions of artisanry, cuisine, and poetry distinct from much of the rest of Pakistan. Baloch craftsmanship includes carpets and dhow-like ships. Their cuisine includes salty, roasted sajji chicken.
Centering the Baloch actually provides an opportunity to broaden the Gwadar narrative. There’s a vast Baloch diaspora in the western Indian Ocean region, most notably in Oman and Kenya. And the Baloch heartland stretches into Iran and parts of Afghanistan.
There are other potential pegs to a cultural-historical narrative for Gwadar. It visited by Alexander the Great and Muhammad bin Qasim. Gwadar served as a telegraph station during British colonial rule of India. There is an indigenous Hindu population along the Makran coastal belt — with a major Hindu religious site, Hinglaj Mata, located five hours from Gwadar in the Hingol National Park. (As I journeyed along the Makran Coastal Highway, I passed Hindu pilgrims walking on foot beneath the glaring sun, destined for Hinglaj Mata, located dozens of miles away.)
Needed: A Space for Culture
The city of Gwadar should have a dedicated, walkable cultural space with a museum at its center — a museum that focuses on the history of Gwadar, and extends beyond to a history of Pakistan, the Indian Ocean region, and even the Silk Road. It could be named the Silk Road and Indian Ocean Museum at Gwadar.
The surrounding area — peppered with green spaces with plenty of shade trees — could also include a performing arts center, a public library, a food street, and grand bazaar.
The Gwadar museum could host artifacts from across Pakistan, China, southern India, East Africa, and Southeast Asia. Possible exhibits might include ones on Gwadar and Balochistan, the arrival of Alexander the Great’s army, the spread of Islam into present-day Pakistan, and linkages between Baloch Pakistanis and the Persian Gulf region.
Picture a family of four flying into Gwadar from Lahore for a three-day weekend. On day one, they check into their seaside hotel and visit the beach. In the evening, they dine by the sea at a fine restaurant that serves local seafood. The next day, they go paragliding or rock climbing, or pull off a day trip, camping overnight outside the city limits. And then on their final day, they visit the Gwadar museum, food street, and grand bazaar, coming back home with local handicrafts, fresh jams made from Panjgur dates and Quetta cherries, and fresh-pressed olive oil from Zhob.
These businesses and facilities would require a good number of local employees, whose rising incomes and needs would in turn feed a local consumption economy. The end result would be a significant rise in economic transactions within the city of Gwadar, built in part on supply chains stretching across Balochistan.
A Gwadar performing arts center could drive an event-based economy by hosting annual forums, like a literary festival, a regional economic or security conference, and an all-Pakistan science fair. This would also support the local hospitality industry and support occupancy rates.
Gwadar would mainly be a domestic tourism play. And that’s not a problem given Pakistan’s massive population. Increasingly, Pakistanis are vacationing abroad and not just on good old Dubai, but also in the Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as Thailand and Turkey.
It’s hard to see risk-adverse Americans visiting Gwadar in significant number. And European beach-going habits would probably be too much for Pakistanis to handle. The ideal foreign visitor to Gwadar might middle class and upper-income families from Muslim-majority countries, including neighboring Iran. Iranians could be offered visas on arrival after coming by air or cruise, met by service staff fluent in Persian.
A Chinese state-owned engineering company is revising the Gwadar master plan. Unfortunately, it’s unclear to what extent they’re consulting locals on the changes that will be made and how important cultural spaces are to them. In any event, China has a poor record when it comes to cultural preservation. Modernization over the past two decades has destroyed countless heritages sites in China. So much of the old town of Kashgar was demolished only to be replaced by Disneyland-styles replicas.
The federal government of Pakistan, the Balochistan provincial government, and Gwadar Development Authority have far more conscientious and capable potential partners to develop cultural spaces in Gwadar. Topping the list would be the Aga Khan Foundation and the Sultanate of Oman. Gwadar, once home to a decently sized Khoja trader community, still has an Ismaili jamatkhana. The Aga Khan Foundation has long experience with cultural preservation. And the associated Aga Khan Development Network also operates the Serena chain of hotels in Pakistan, Central Asia, and East Africa.
The Sultanate of Oman brings a similar mix of historic linkages, experience in hospitality, and an abiding concern for cultural preservation. Muscat not only controlled Gwadar till 1958, but it also has an excellent track record when it comes to developing cultural and nature tourism. It has previously offered grants to the Pakistani government for projects in Gwadar. And many residents of Gwadar have dual Pakistani-Omani citizenship.