Throughout Pakistan’s troubled history, terrorism has been extremely harmful for the country’s reputation around the globe. For many years, and according to the international safety standards, Pakistan remained black listed as a travel destination, with hardly any visitors.
The Northern (and most beautiful) part of the country had been particularly vulnerable due its mountainous terrain that was favoring such terrorist activities. It was no secret that the entry point of those terrorist groups onto Pakistan was the land borders with Afghanistan. With that in mind and in an effort to secure its grounds, Pakistan decided to install a 2.600 km fence along the Afghan border. Truth be told, this fence remains unpopular among local Pashtun tribes that used to live on both sides. Those people were forced to settle in either Afghanistan or Pakistan, being separated forever from the rest of their family and friends.
Set aside the social impact, the fence installation has indeed proved successful and the terrorist activity in Northern Pakistan gradually declined over the years. Today it is considered as one of the safest destinations in the whole country. The Pakistan army monitors the entire area and ensures the safety of foreigners, through a tourist registration process and free escorting service. For more details, please scroll to the “Checkpoints – Tourist Registration” section here below.
Speaking about other parts of the country, there are certain areas that still remain in a state of unrest and are considered as high-risk (i.e. Kashmir, Balochistan, Afghan border). As a tourist, you will not be allowed to enter, and even if you try to sneak in you will definitely be stopped at some checkpoint and sent back. It might sound frustrating, considering that those zones are open to locals, but do keep in mind that restrictions apply for your own safety. Exceptionally, you can request permission to enter some parts of those prohibited areas, but if your safety is at stake your chances still remain close to zero. Please refer to the dedicated “Special Permission for Entering in Restricted/Prohibited Areas” section here below for more details.
Demonstrations and Protests
During our visit in Pakistan (April 2021), a number of violent anti-France protests led by radical Islamists groups burst out. This was done in reaction to a series of cartoon publications on the French magazine Charles Hebdo seen as disrespectful towards Prophet Mohammed. Following the full support given by the French President Emmanuel Macron, stating freedom of speech, protesters were demanding the French Embassy to be ousted from the country.
In fear of being targeted as foreigners, we were precautionary advised to avoid cities like Lahore or Multan where protests were more intense. We decided to follow our initial plan and faced no issue at all while in Lahore. However, once we arrived in Multan surprisingly we were requested for a NOC document for checking in our hotel. NOC indicates that a certain area is flagged as high-risk and therefore foreigners need special permission to enter.
With the help of a powerful local acquaintance we had, we were finally accepted in a hotel without NOC. However, the hotel staff insisted on accompanying us even to the nearest super market. They even claimed that we should get police escort for walking around the city. However, the next day people were more relaxed and we were told that we could freely roam around Multan. Again we faced nothing but welcoming smiles, and people who were treating us with kindness.
As a general rule of thumb, try to stay up-to-date on what is happening around the country and avoid visiting places where things get out of control evolving into riots or clashes.
Pandemic-wise, most of Pakistan areas (mainly outside of big cities) seemed absolutely safe to us. Before even flying in the country, we were informed that for entering the Gilgit Baltistan province (in the Northern Pakistan) we would need a negative PCR test. Indeed we were asked for our medical certificate 2 or 3 times along the way. This made us feel that Pakistan was taking the epidemiological situation quite seriously, trying to protect people living in the most remote parts of the country.
Things changed dramatically when we moved in the big cities. A significant number of people were not using face masks at all, not caring much about COVID. However, once again the Pakistani authorities were trying to put controls in place by imposing strict lockdowns on touristic places, night/weekend curfews, as well as various restrictions on public and commercial activities.
The bad road conditions and frequent landslides in the Northern part of the country (which, by the way, is the most touristic) is clearly the highest risk you will encounter in Pakistan. Numerous accidents are regularly recorded, and from what we have seen ourselves the risk in those areas is indeed extremely high.
The worse roads we experienced were the following:
- Fairy Meadows
- Gilgit Scardu
- Certain parts on the way to Chitral
- Kalash Valleys
Checkpoints - Tourist Registration
While traveling across Pakistan, be well-prepared to experience a number of police controls on the various checkpoints along the way. Foreigners have to undergo a mandatory registration process when entering/exiting each checkpoint. To speed up the process, make sure you have plenty of passport/visa copies with you, as you will be requested to provide a set every single time. The most frequent police controls can be found in Northern Pakistan, on the way from Islamabad to Hunza.
In certain areas that are considered more dangerous for tourists, you will be additionally offered an armed security escort free of charge. Most of these areas are no longer a real risk, yet according to a security protocol that is still in force, the local police need to make sure that foreigners are not exposed to any kind of danger. Your escort guards are really friendly and beyond any doubt care about your personal safety.
Special Permission for Entering in Restricted/Prohibited Areas
As a foreigner/tourist, it is important to know that you can only enter certain high-risk areas in Pakistan by obtaining permission from the local authorities. Namely, those areas are:
- Various districts in Azad Jammu Kashmir
- The entire Balochistan Province. It is extremely difficult to get permission to freely move around Balochistan due to constant unrest and terrorist attacks in the broader area. Exceptionally, and for tourists entering Pakistan from Iran, permission is granted quickly so that they can move out of Balochistan fastly. If your intention is to explore the area, then you should focus on the most touristic sites such as National Parks, Forts, as well as the coastal line.
- The city of Multan (don’t ask me why, but at the time of our visit we were requested for a NOC in order to simply check-in in our hotel).
- Province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) at the borders with Afghanistan
Before scheduling your visit in those specific areas, please ensure you have applied for a NOC document. NOC stands for No Objection Certificate and is a legal document issued by the government through a specific (quite complex and lengthy) procedure. You can apply for this document either individually or through a tour operator. As we were unaware of this requirement prior to our visit, we did not manage to get sufficient information for raising our application while in Pakistan.
Considering that international tourism is not widespread across Pakistan just yet, indeed the whole process is not well-defined. However, following extensive research I did online, it seems that the most appropriate office to raise your request is the Ministry of Interior in Islamabad. A period of six (6) weeks is needed to get your application processed until security clearance is granted (if your application is finally approved). If you have any local acquaintance/sponsor that can support your application, I highly urge you to ask for his help.
Please refer to the standard procedure as defined by the Ministry of Interior on the picture here below. You can also download the paper NOC Application Form here.