Over US$ 60 billion worth energy and infrastructure related projects in Pakistan under China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) have not only opened gates for Chinese entrepreneurs for exploring their economic interests and establishing trade ties in Pakistan but have also attracted Chinese civilians for tourism.
Since launching of CPEC during President Xi's visit to Pakistan in April 2015, Pakistan has witnessed a huge jump in Chinese visitors.
While Pakistan's Interior Ministry preferred to avoid releasing immigration data about number of Chinese visiting Pakistan, according to Pakistani print media about 71,000 Chinese nationals visited Pakistan in 2016 and 27,596 visa extensions were granted to the Chinese that year, which was 41 per cent increase on 2015, indicating more Chinese were staying in Pakistan for a longer period.
Previously security concern was a major hurdle for Chinese visiting Pakistan, therefore, in the past, Pakistan did not attract many Chinese tourists. However, after launching of CPEC, Pakistan has also becoming a tourist hub for Chinese and the improved security situation in Pakistan also contributed in attracting more and more Chinese tourists to Pakistan.
In addition to it, Pakistan's recent unequivocal support to China against The Hague tribunal ruling of 12 July, 2016 in favour of the Philippines relating to the disputed waters of the South China Sea had also brought Chinese more closer to Pakistan as Pakistan was the first country in world to support China against Philippines over the issue.
Meanwhile, the increased terrorist activities in some European countries, especially in France, have also dissuaded Chinese to visit such terrorist infested countries and they prefer to explore other counties including neighbouring Pakistan. In addition, the strong ties between Pakistan and China are also driving Chinese to Pakistan. For Chinese tourists, Pakistan has been emerging as "a dark horse" and Chinese tourists have started putting Pakistan on the top list of their outbound travel plans. Moreover, Pakistan has already been providing visa-on-arrival facility to Chinese group tourists and China has also declared Pakistan as its most favoured destination for Chinese tourists.
Notably, the number of tourist visa applications to Pakistan submitted by Chinese in the first half year of the year 2016 jumped by nearly forty folds. After visiting Pakistan many Chinese tourists have started addressing Pakistan as "BATIE", which means that friendship between Pakistan and China was as strong as "iron". After anti-militancy operation 'Zerb-e-Azb' in Pakistan, Chinese tourists have also started feeling more safe and secure. According to Wang Yanyong, Director of the Tourism Development and Planning at Beijing's Jiaotong University, security was always the top concern of Chinese tourists and they liked to visit places, where they felt secured and Pakistan was one of them.
While security to the Chinese workforce involved in CPEC projects is being provided by the Pakistan army's Special Security Division (SSD), comprising nine army composite battalions and six civil armed forces (CAFs) wings, security to the Chinese tourists and businessmen is being looked after by the local law enforcing agencies and the provincial police.
Meanwhile, Pakistan government was concerned about the misusing of visa by Chinese nationals visiting Pakistan. A Chinese couple, who was staying in Quetta was murdered (May 24, 2017) by the Islamic State (IS). The couple was found misusing of their business visa and was involved in preaching of Christianity under guise of business. Following which, Pakistan government reviewed (June 22, 2017) country's visa regime for Chinese visiting Pakistan. The Interior Ministry of Pakistan also decided to ensure maximum security of the Chinese nationals visiting Pakistan on various visa categories and to streamline and regulate the entire process of visa issuance to Chinese nationals. Pakistan's embassy in Beijing was also directed by the Federal Interior Ministry to ensure strict scrutiny of the documents provided for the visa so that Chinese nationals visiting Pakistan might not flout the visa rules and regulations.
The then Interior Minister, Ch Nisar Ali Khan had also directed his ministry to tighten the visa process for Chinese businessmen visiting Pakistan and initiate some steps in this regard such as Chinese nationals seeking business visas and visa on arrival had to produce production of invitation or assignment letter duly certified and endorsed by the recognised chamber of commerce and industry along with a letter from Pakistani Commercial Attache's and other designated officers of Pakistan who are posted abroad. Powers of Pakistan's regional passport offices for granting visa extension were also withdrawn and only Immigration and Passports (IMPASS) headquarters in Islamabad was given the authority to deal such matters. Pakistan's National Database Registration Authority (NADRA) was also directed to start consolidation of data of Chinese nationals present in Pakistan for sharing it with the security agencies for ensuring security arrangements.
One of the major reasons of Chinese influx in Pakistan is more business opportunities after beginning of CPEC project in the country. The visiting Chinese were found working in various fields of business such as in property, electrical appliances and household goods, and were exploring the potential for setting up factories or importing Chinese goods in Pakistan. Many Chinese also visit Pakistan to explore business possibilities and study the market to launch their products in Pakistan. However, the Pakistani security agencies are facing problems as most of Chinese businessmen arrive in Pakistan on tourist visa and disperse across the country. In 2014, the Punjab (Pakistan) government had setup 8,000-strong Special Protection Unit (SPU) to guard foreigners and 90 per cent of those SPU protected were Chinese. In addition, a number of Chinese youth have also been visiting Pakistan for seeking jobs, including in Chinese restaurants, Chinese language schools and Chinese business consultancy companies.
Pakistani civil law & order authorities' friendly attitude is another reason for encouraging Chinese to visit Pakistan as Chinese are not only extended useful help in security matters, they are also let off for minor offenses such as driving without a valid license. Most of the Chinese youth, who visit Pakistan on a tourist visa but do some jobs were also found to be less concerned about their safety and security as getting their salary on time had been their first concern.
Meanwhile, trend of a large number of Chinese visiting Pakistan is going to stay as Pakistan's new government led by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has assured China its full support and security to CPEC and Chinese in Pakistan.
Miftah Ismail, a special adviser to Prime Minister Shahid Abbasi, had told to the local media that since Pakistan needed foreign investments, the government would not allow militants to "mess with the Chinese". Pakistan government has also envisaged a plan to build "pilot safe city" for Chinese in Pakistan, beginning from Peshawar, and later, in some other major cities like Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi also, where Chinese troops are likely to be deployed. In addition, these major cities of Pakistani cities would also be equipped with monitoring and surveillance systems with twenty-four-hour video recordings of movements on roads, markets and other public places.
The phenomenal Chinese investments in Pakistan are bound to increase the number of Chinese visitors in Pakistan in future. At the same time it would also have some disadvantages for the Pakistani government and the civil society, such as law and order problems, misuse of visa regimes, unauthorized stay in Pakistan, illicit sale of liquor in Chinese restaurants, and illegal religious activates such as propagation of Christianity. However, Pakistan seems to be ready and prepared to accept all such negative aspects for the sake of Chinese investments in Pakistan and would encourage more and more Chinese visitors to visit Pakistan