ISLAMABAD // Being the tourism minister is perhaps one of the toughest cabinet portfolios in Pakistan, where the precarious political situation and militancy do little to attract visitors to the country. So the decision by Asif Ali Zardari, the president, to appoint a hardline Islamic cleric, rather than a western-educated liberal, to try and revive the sagging industry, has raised eyebrows.
Last month, Maulana Atta-ur Rehman, an anti-western religious leader belonging to a conservative Islamic political party that calls for the segregation of men and women, was chosen to head the tourism ministry. The new minister has wasted little time in implementing his vision, making headlines. One of Mr Rehman's first undertakings was to order a ban on the sale of alcohol in all government- owned hotels and motels, much to the anger of secularists and non-Muslims. The sale of alcohol is banned in public, but Christians and other minorities have special permits to buy and sell liquor.
Critics said the minister's actions will only scare off potential visitors, rather than attract them. "Sir, you need to immediately visit St Tropez and beaches in France, as Pakistan has coastal areas that could be developed on similar lines to attract foreign tourists," Enver Baig, a member of the Senate belonging to Pakistan Peoples' Party, said during a Senate debate last week, drawing laughter from those present.
The suggestion did have the support of many senators, though others questioned the move to ban alcohol in government-owned hotels while the sale continued elsewhere. Mr Rehman stood his ground. "Pakistan is a Muslim country. We cannot allow anyone to use liquor," he said. Though he seemed to acknowledge he could not prevent its sale in private hotels, saying: "I have exercised my powers wherever I could."
The minister has also been embroiled in controversy over the firing of a senior official in the tourism ministry, once again making the headlines in local papers. The minister was apparently angered that the managing director of the Pakistan Tourism Development Corp was using the ministry's Toyota Prado. Despite the fact that according to ministry regulations the minister was not entitled to use the flashy four-wheeler, he demanded the managing director, a retired brigadier, hand over the vehicle, and fired him when he refused.
The minister was criticised for acting pettily and indulging in trivialities. Bloggers called him "maulana prado". Maulana is a religious scholar, but maulana prado is a taunt. Mr Rehman defended his decision as necessary for the ministry to function smoothly and that he wanted to have someone able in place of the retired brigadier. The vehicle, he claimed, was not the real issue. "What kind of authority do I have as a minister if I cannot even implement orders in my own ministry," Mr Rehman said calmly when questioned on Geo, the country's most popular news television network.
Furthermore, he said the action had the backing of the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, though Mr Gilani admonished the minister and distanced himself from the episode. Mr Rehman has also been criticised for refusing the Senate standing committee on tourism's proposal that he visit the Swat valley. Swat used to be one of the most picturesque valleys in the country and a major tourist resort but is now wrecked by violence as militants, who want Sharia to be enforced throughout the region, are engaged in fighting with the Pakistan military.
A wave of terror has been unleashed with public floggings, the killing of opponents and the destruction of hundreds of girls' schools. Local populations have also been displaced. Hotels that were once full with local and foreign tourists are empty and many have closed down. Mr Baig said he had urged Mr Rehman to go to Saidu-Sharif, a Swat Valley town, and hold meetings there with local people to assure them the government had not turned a blind eye to their plight.
But the minister declined. "He said dead bodies are found in Swat every day. I wanted him to visit Saidu-Sharif and Maingora as a confidence-building measure," Mr Baig said in an interview. Tourism ministers in Pakistan are no strangers to controversy. Nilofer Bakhtiar, the first female tourism minister, who had been appointed by Pervez Musharraf, received death threats from Islamic extremists in 2007 after photos of her hugging a French parachute trainer circulated in the national press.
Ms Bakhtiar had just completed a parachute jump in France at an event arranged by an aid group, but photographs showing her embracing her instructor were splashed across newspapers and she was roundly condemned for her "un-Islamic behaviour". Ms Bakhtiar resigned from her post after she found herself without any supporters in the cabinet. firstname.lastname@example.org