In the last two decades, Pakistan’s tourism industry has been completely upended due to travel safety and security issues. But this intrepid leader says times are changing, especially for female travelers, and now is the perfect time to visit.
Before 9/11, Pakistan had a moment. Tourism in the region was on the rise and travelers realized that they could have a true ‘off the beaten track’ adventure in a country that offered a rich and complex history, stunning landscapes and warm, welcoming people.
But after September 2001, travel to the region stopped virtually overnight. People were afraid of terrorism, security issues and political unrest. Pakistan became a part of the world where people – especially women – did not feel safe visiting.
Fortunately, this is starting to change, thanks in part to women like Aneeqa Ali, an Intrepid tour guide and founder of travel company The Mad Hatters. Aneeqa launched The Mad Hatters in 2017 as a way to show travelers some of Pakistan’s lesser explored (and endlessly beautiful) places.
Aneeqa, who will be spearheading our new 2023 Pakistan expedition, focuses on female empowerment, engagement and community connection on all her tours. “If you look at Pakistan’s tourism industry – at tour guides, transport operators and hoteliers – it’s like a man’s world,” she says. “I’ve faced these challenges firsthand and thought ‘Why not be the change you want to see in the world?’ Starting my own travel company could make it easier for other people – especially women – who also want to see Pakistan.”
While the influencer culture in recent years has made traveling in Pakistan look quite simple, it really isn’t. Visiting the region is not without its complexity.
“Pakistan is an internet black hole. Even the most adventurous travelers who have been all over the world cannot find information online about how to travel within Pakistan,” says Aneeqa. “So when they come here, especially women, they will sign up for an organized tour and they will be with a female tour guide because of the news they have heard about Pakistan.”
Aneeqa says the majority of organized tours in Pakistan tend not to venture too far off the tourist trail, hitting popular spots while steering clear of smaller towns. “One thing that’s really missing is that connection with local communities, which is something I encourage on all my tours,” she says.
As a Pakistani woman with deep connections to local communities, Aneeqa prides herself on offering travelers a more immersive experience that other tour groups just don’t get. She uses the example of staying in traditional guesthouses and with families in a local homestay. “When we stay with local people in their homes, we do the things they do in their everyday lives. We can go into the kitchen and start cooking with them,” she says. “If you live in a hotel, you are cut off from it. You don’t have that experience of how people in society live.”
What surprises travelers most about Pakistan, according to Aneeqa, is the landscape. “After Nepal, Pakistan has the highest number of mountains above 8,000 meters,” she says. “When you travel down the Karakoram Highway, you are surrounded by these towering peaks. People are just amazed by these incredible landscapes.”
The other thing that stands out is the warm hospitality travelers receive. “I think that’s what keeps people coming back, again and again,” says Aneeqa. “You can walk down the street and suddenly you’re invited into someone’s home for a cup of tea or a meal. People here are just so welcoming.”
Aneeqa is excited to take intrepid travelers on this year’s all-new expeditions through Pakistan, not only to showcase her favorite parts of the country, but to support women in local communities. “Women don’t have many choices when it comes to earning an income,” she says. “But on these trips we visit local businesses where women make handicrafts from their homes, weave carpets, run cafes. And we will always go to the places that are run by locals. I want to make sure that all the money spent on these trips goes to the people who need it.”
Want to know more about traveling to Pakistan? Check out ours Pakistan travels.