Before coming to power, Prime Minister Imran Khan often railed at the successive governments of Pakistan for failing to exploit the vast potential of tourism

ISLAMABAD: For cash-strapped Pakistan, struggling to rebuild its economy and image, the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor is an opportunity to project itself as a moderate nation while earning a tidy sum annually from pilgrims.

Before coming to power, Prime Minister Imran Khan often railed at the successive governments of Pakistan for failing to exploit the vast potential of tourism, including revered religious sites, to attract tourists from around the world.

After assuming last year, among the first things he did was to take steps to attract visitors for sight-seeing and pilgrimage.

Addressing a tourism summit organised by his government here in April, Khan said the God has bestowed Pakistan with diverse kind of landscapes.

"We need to give tourists awareness about the scenic beauty of the country," Khan said.

He also highlighted religious tourism, especially for the followers of Sikhism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

In November last year, he performed the historic groundbreaking of the development work for the opening of the Kartarpur shrine for Sikhs in India and rest of the world.

The construction work has been completed in record time on the corridor.

Khan is set to inaugurate it on Saturday, ahead of the 550th birth anniversary of Baba Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, on November 12.

Foreign Office spokesman Mohammad Faisal said that 10,000 Sikhs will attend the opening ceremony and then every day at least 5,000 Sikhs from India and an equal number from Pakistan and other places be allowed to visit the shrine.

"The opening of the corridor for the Sikh community will open vast opportunities for religious tourism," he said.

During the last two decades, Pakistan has suffered due to violence and terrorism.

The country's economy nosedived and it lost its image as a business-friendly country.

Government estimates show that over USD 126 billion were lost by the end of 2018.

As Khan struggles to rebuild the shattered economy and visage of the country, he desperately needs to offer better options to the outside world.

With Sikhs coming to Pakistan in droves, Khan's dream is getting close to realisation.

The quick development work at Kartarpur despite tensions with India is being appreciated.

The corridor will connect the Dera Baba Nanak shrine in India's Punjab with Darbar Sahib at Kartarpur, just 4 kilometres from the International Border, located at Narowal district of Pakistan's Punjab province.

At Darbar Sahib, Guru Nanak had spent the last 18 years of his life.

Notwithstanding a chill in bilateral ties over Kashmir, Pakistan and India after tough negotiations signed a landmark agreement on October 24 to operationalise the corridor to allow Indian pilgrims to visit the holy Darbar Sahib in Pakistan.

Pakistan's officials are showcasing Kartarpur as the symbol of religious harmony and representative of the teachings of Islam about showing respect towards non-Muslims.

"We are following the footsteps of Prophet Muhammad regarding the provision of facilities to minorities," Faisal said.

There seems to be a conscious effort to distance from extremism and terrorism which over the years became synonymous with Pakistan.

By showing the other side of Islam, Khan's government is trying to build a case to divert pressure that Pakistan was not doing enough to eliminate militancy.

The opening of the corridor may prove handy to wriggle out of the Grey List of the Financial Action Task Force that will meet in February to review Pakistan's performance on combating terror-financing and money laundering.

As far as the rebuilding of the economy is concerned, religious tourism can directly and indirectly help.

For example, Pakistan decided to levy USD 20 as service charge from every pilgrim coming from India.

Officials are hoping to collect a tidy sum annually that will be handy to support the balance of payment and boost foreign reserves.

Pakistan is expected to earn up to Indian Rs 258 crore per annum -- about Pakistani Rs 571 crore -- from pilgrims visiting Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur.

Last week, a group of 185 Sikhs were flown to Lahore by Pakistan International Airlines from London to attend the 550 birth anniversary rites of Baba Guru Nanak, indirectly helping the cash-starved national flag-carrier.

As Sikhs flock to Pakistan, Buddhists may not remain far behind.

Last month a group of Buddhist from South Korea visited a stupa in Haripur in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province.

It is believed that after the success of the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor, Pakistan is also aiming to market Taxila and its vast Buddhist heritage to the followers of Buddhism around the world.

Faisal said tourism is an industry that Pakistan was unable to focus on earlier, however, Khan's government is making a concerted effort to promote this industry in the country.

"One of the facets of the tourism industry is religious tourism. Sikhs/Nanak NaamLevas (followers), Hindus and Buddhist monks etc have various holy sites in Pakistan and we are trying to tap this potential of religious tourism," he said.

According to a report, 1.75 million tourists visited Pakistan in 2017.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the direct contribution of travel and tourism to Pakistan's economy was USD 20,098.9 million in 2019.

Faisal said many initiatives under religious tourism were currently in the pipeline and a great deal of effort was being put in for their fruition.

"The promotion of such initiatives will also help in boosting the economy of Pakistan," he said.