By Sonya Rehman
Just a couple of months old, “Super Karachi Express,” a tourist bus company in the metropolitan city of Karachi, in Pakistan, has set out to make culture cool in a country exhausted, overwhelmed and worn out amidst the ongoing, unrelenting sectarian violence.
Co-founded by Atif Bin Arif, a young Pakistani based in Karachi, who left Canada a little over three years ago to come back to home turf, the company has set to “reclaim Pakistan, one city at a time” (as its tag-line states) by expanding its bus tours to the cities of Lahore and Islamabad, where it will be known as “Super Savari Express.”
“Growing up, our father always told us, Pakistan is like your parent,” Arif states. “When they age, they start complaining, they become dependent on you and need you to take care of them; it is for you to then decide whether you leave them at an old folk’s home or take care of them till your last breath.”
We’re sitting on the rooftop of a coffee shop in Lahore called Mocca. It’s a gorgeous, sunny, winter afternoon and Arif has been in town to suss out Lahore’s vibe – the routes, culture, the Old City. He wants to figure out how his bus company can establish itself in the country’s cultural capital. It’s apparent Arif’s on the right track; he informs me he has met key people associated with the arts and culture in the city.
He has good business sense, too. Plus, Arif’s a people person, a charmer and a diplomat. It comes as little surprise that his family is involved in the tourism and hospitality industry in Pakistan; they run a travel company called Gulliver’s Travels in Karachi.
“We have forgotten to say; ‘I am Pakistani’ with pride,” states Arif. We’ve begun speaking about the current generation’s weird dilemma – the strange, never-ending identity crisis that has left the country’s young populace hungry for answers, direction, and, a desperate need for belonging. “We are a mosaic of cultures, ethnicities, religions and social backgrounds. We have over 5,000 years of subcontinent history,” Arif states, “However; we are in this confusion of lost identity either based on our ethnic or racial background and/or geographic location. Our goal is to work backwards, and reclaim Pakistan, one city at a time. For us to create this unified identity that before being a Muslim or Christian; before being a Sindhi or Punjabi; we are human beings and we are Pakistani.”
In person, Arif is like a livewire – it’s hard to get a word in – but his passion for his project is palpable. He’s brimming with ideas and can’t wait to launch Lahore’s bus tour this month, in March. “City tours are a great way of putting our own city and our own nation back on the global map as a tourist and vacation destination,” says Arif.
Having started out with only six participants on their first-ever bus tour in Karachi, Arif mentions that the numbers have grown considerably and that the response has been amazing. “We have served over the thousand mark and the numbers are only growing as we move to Islamabad and Lahore,” he says, “We have had participants from various countries such as Colombia, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Sweden, Norway, Britain, Canada and the list goes on – our testimonial book is a good evidence of our diversity.”
With young and educated tour guides on board who serve as the venture’s “brand ambassadors,” “Super Savari Express” trains its guides with the assistance of architects, heritage activists, and others who ensure that precise and factual historical information is imparted to the bus tour’s participants “in a more entertaining and learned manner, rather than a dry, historical tour.”
Even though Pakistan has much to offer in terms of tourism, politics has marred any hope for the revival of Pakistan’s once thriving tourism industry. How then, does Arif’s initiative aim to better the country’s image?
“I think when someone brings up Pakistan – the word ‘tourism’ is far from what comes to our mind, it’s more about violence, and/or high-end restaurants, VIP protocol and shopping centers,” Arif states, “Our goal as Pakistan’s first guided city tour bus is to show all of that and much more. Yes! All of those are there, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for the mosaic of cultures, ethnicities and religions which we also have co-existing in harmony within our metropolitan cities. Most of our target audience is unaware of the architectural beauty from the British Raj on the streets, or the simple historical significance behind the streets and parks they visit on a daily basis.”
“Our aim is to put our heads down and give it our all for a more peaceful and prosperous Pakistan,” he continues, “However, it would not be out of place to mention that we do intend to take off from where the Ministry of Tourism has left, and show Pakistanis and foreigners the true beauty of Pakistan; natural and man-made.”
The Diplomat Magazine