Airport security personnel escort British Airways officials upon their arrival at Islamabad International Airport on June 3 with the resumption of the airline’s service to Pakistan. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

After 11 Years, British Airways Returns to Pakistan

Air carrier’s decision spurred in part by progress in fight against terrorism

[Islamabad] In what is being viewed as a vote of confidence in Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, British Airways resumed flights to Pakistan this week after having suspended service due to security fears over a decade ago.

The British carrier − which halted the service in 2008 following the deadly Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad − is running three weekly flights from London’s Heathrow Airport to Pakistan’s capital.

Flight BA-261, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner carrying 240 passengers, touched down at Islamabad International Airport at 9:25 a.m. local time on Monday. The British high commissioner, the equivalent of ambassador between Commonwealth nations, and key members of Khan’s cabinet welcomed the aircraft as both the Union Jack and Pakistan’s national flag were waved from the cockpit roof hatch.

British Airways has also opened an office in Islamabad.

“Pakistan welcomes British Airways. Not only will it help tourism in Pakistan, it will send a positive signal across the globe about security and business opportunities in Pakistan,” local media quoted Khan as saying during his meeting with High Commissioner Thomas Drew.

Drew, addressing a press conference on the premises of the British High Commission in Islamabad, said: “Today is a big day for the UK and Pakistan. With British Airways’ new direct service between London and Islamabad, Britain’s flag carrier is back. The two countries, already so close in so many ways, take a step closer.”

Speaking to The Media Line, the high commissioner said: “British Airways is the first European airline to return to Pakistan for more than 10 years. This flight is a symbol of the extraordinary links between our two countries – from commerce, culture and cricket to people, politics and education. I see this new service as a vote of confidence in the future of those links. It will give a particular boost to trade and investment. And it is of course a tribute to the great improvements in the security situation in Pakistan in recent years.”

The British High Commission quoted, in an email sent to this correspondent, UK Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox as saying the renewed flights would greatly benefit bilateral commerce.

“The relaunch of British Airways flights between the UK and Pakistan will be a major boost for trade between our two countries. It is no surprise that it is an iconic British airline that is the first Western airline to return to Pakistan, a symbol of the strong and growing relationship between our two countries,” Fox said.

Ghulam Sarwar, Pakistan’s federal minister of aviation, told The Media Line: “This shows improvement in the security situation of Pakistan. It will help boost tourism in Pakistan.”

British Airways CCO Andrew Brem agreed.

“The airline decided to resume operations due to increasing demand and the improved security situation in Pakistan,” he told journalists during a press conference in Islamabad.

Khan is trying to boost an ailing economy by promoting tourism. His government has started the Pakistan Online Visa System, available to the citizens of 175 countries.

The country’s tourism industry, with earnings currently estimated at $22 billion annually, is seeing strong growth. The World Travel and Tourism Council forecasts this figure will surpass $39.8 billion within a decade.

Authorities in Pakistan hope the return of British Airways will open a new window for tourists.

“With the relaunch of British Airways [flights], a huge influx of British and European tourists is expected in Pakistan. It’s indeed a great achievement for Prime Minister Khan, who believes the country’s tourism industry will single-handedly revive the economy,” Sarwar told The Media Line.

British Airways suspended service to Pakistan following the Marriot Hotel bombing on September 20, 2008, which killed 54 people and wounded 266. Following the attack, a wave of suicide attacks across the country impelled multinational companies to halt operations. However, military operations by Pakistan’s armed forces in the aftermath of the hotel bombing gradually improved law and order across the country – security operations during 2013-2017 led to a sharp reduction in terrorism and militancy, especially in northern areas known for lush green valleys, fairytale-like meadows, sparkling streams and snow-capped mountains.

The World Travel and Tourism Council reported in March 2018 that travel and tourism accounted for $8.8 billion, approximately 2.9 percent of Pakistan’s 2017 GDP. This revenue is forecasted to rise by 5.9% in 2018 and by 5.8% annually over the coming 10 years, to $16 billion. However, according to data collected by the nation’s central bank, the total contribution of travel and tourism to GDP in 2017 stood at $22 billion, or 7.4% of the GDP, and this was forecasted to rise by 5.8% in 2018, and 5.4% annually through 2028, to $39.8 billion, or 7.4%.

Still, Pakistan lags behind the region when it comes to the travel and tourism sector’s contribution to GDP. India’s tourism industry is worth $234 billion annually (9.4% of GDP in 2017), and is forecast to rise by 7.5% in 2018, and by 6.9% annually through 2028, to $492.2 billion, or 9.9% of the GDP, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Travel and tourism accounted for 3,894,000 jobs across Pakistan in 2017, or 6.5% of employment, according to data obtained from the council.

Nadeem Afzal Chan, a spokesperson for Khan, told The Media Line by phone: “Pakistan can surely benefit from the relaunch of British Airways’ flight operations. It can be a travel and tourism destination for millions of British Pakistanis as well as UK and European nationals.”

There are more than 1.17 million British Pakistanis, according to the UK’s 2011 census. In addition, an estimated 188,000 Pakistanis who are not British citizens live in the UK.

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