Sayed Zulfikar Bukhari
Sayed Zulfikar Bukhari Image Credit: Supplied

Sayed Zulfikar Bukhari, famously known as Zulfi Bukhari, is an enigma to most Pakistanis. As the naysayers would have you believe. The reality is far from that.

Once upon a time, most of the Pakistanis knew Bukhari only as Imran Khan’s friend. Media still refuses to describe him in any other way. After Khan became the prime minister of Pakistan in August 2018, Bukhari’s inclusion in Khan’s cabinet as Special Assistant to Prime Minister for Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development–a position equivalent to minister of state–later earned him the unenviable titles of Khan’s “right hand man”, the “minister closest” to Khan. Bukhari would beg to differ. He doesn’t talk about his friendship with Imran Khan. When Bukhari mentions Khan, it is only in terms of a minister’s connection to their prime minister.

The principal reason behind reducing Bukhari into the patronising titles of Khan’s “friend” and “confidant” is the stubbornness of mainstream media to continue the debate about his eligibility as a British national and his suitability as a dual national to serve Pakistan in Khan’s cabinet. There is hardly ever a word about Bukhari’s work in any talk show. The focus, years later, is still on the “merits” of his closeness to the prime minister. Bukhari remains undeterred. He continues to work, silently, constantly.

Domestically, Bukhari is a prominent member of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, focused on his assignments. Internationally, in his personal and professional capacity as a representative of Pakistan’s government he works to reinforce Pakistan’s existing ties, create new ones, present Pakistan as a viable investment platform, reiterate the importance of Pakistan’s tourism potential, and find ways to create more goodwill between Pakistan and other countries based on establishing or/and strengthening bilateral interests.

What the Pakistani media fails to take into consideration is that before joining Khan’s party, Bukhari in his own right had a highly well-known life, starkly different from the gruelling, on-your-toes, 48-hour-day existence of a politician devoted to his leader’s struggle to change the country for better. A successful businessman and philanthropist, renowned in some of the top global business circles, particularly in the UK, Bukhari in 2018 was on the list of the 100 Most Powerful and Influential Muslims in the Great Britain. In December 2020, Pakistan’s Hello! put Bukhari on the cover of its Hot 100 edition. It isn’t the first and presumably, the last time Bukhari is on such lists.

Zulfikar Bukhari, nevertheless, remains level-headed without allowing positive or negative labels to become an impediment in his dedication to his commitment to serve Pakistan, giving his full attention to his work as a minister in Imran Khan’s government.

I asked Bukhari a few questions:

Mehr Tarar: Pakistan is Asia’s “best-kept secret” in terms of its potential of tourism. How do you plan to fully utilise that?

Zulfikar Bukhari: Pakistan, unfortunately, has remained as Asia’s “best-kept secret” for a long time. In the last two and a half years, thanks to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s focus on the potential of tourism Pakistan is now being highlighted by many renowned international publications and organisations, including Conde Nast, Forbes, The Economist, British Backpacker Society. The Economist has recently reported that Pakistan is number three in terms of potential and employment growth in the tourism sector.

The point is the attention on Pakistan is now international. The exotic locations of Pakistan are not a secret. For a long time, we’ve heard commentary on Pakistan’s six of the highest peaks in the world, long desert stretches in South Punjab, the 260-kilometre beachfront, and turquoise water in Gwadar Balochistan all the way to Karachi. The problem is we just haven’t done enough. Prime Minister Khan has brought it to the international stage.

Our job now is to figure out how to utilise the potential of tourism treating it like a science. Tourism is a science. We must recognise that. It is not just about opening up spaces. It is about sustainability. It is about our future. If we want tourism to succeed in accordance with the prime minister’s vision to turn it into one of the biggest fields of employment, wealth creation and wealth circulation in the economy, we must treat it like a science.

MT: What are the steps that you as Chairman National Tourism Coordination Board (NTCB) Government of Pakistan and Chairman Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation have taken and would take to ensure that the existing and the future areas of tourism are developed on the lines of the most popular tourism attractions of the region? Focusing on various aspects, for instance, travel packages, security, availability of quality food and water, infrastructure, entertainment options.

ZB: The NTCB has created a ten-year tourism policy taking into consideration various factors, such as sustainability, eco-friendly environment, waste management, standardisation. We’ve also created a five-year action plan on the best possible way for its implementation. This is the first ever policy of its kind in Pakistan.

We’ve also created a website to build a brand Pakistan. It is similar to other recognisable brands like Incredible India, Malaysia Truly Asia, Visit Dubai. On that website, information is available on traffic control, weather, standardisation (from one to five-star hotels), best places to visit, newest places to visit, festivals, and many other things. It has a calendar in which, for the first time, all of Pakistan is represented. The unfortunate bit is that previously there were separate calendars for different cities and provinces. This is the first time that we’ve collected all the information and posted it in one national calendar.

On one website, you’ll have information on many important things including your bookings, visa information, flight services, accommodation services, transportation services, places of interest.

The brand Pakistan will also give certification to places of accommodation on the basis of their one-five-star rating, and amenities provided in rooms, among other things. To qualify for certification on the biggest tourism website of the country, the attention to improvement in their service quality and standardisation will increase.

The launch of the website is scheduled after Eid-ul-Fitr. It was planned for April 21, 2020 and was delayed due to the pandemic. Videos of the website will be shown on PIA, in domestic airports, on Qatar Airways, Emirates, British Airways, and in some international airports. The website is the result of synergy from all over Pakistan collected in one brand.

This is probably the first time that we’ve a wide-ranging focus on almost all aspects of our tourism. Not just the mountains and deserts, we’re also rediscovering our history. In February, Prime Minister Khan inaugurated the Al-Biruni Radius Heritage Trail at the Nandana Fort in Jhelum, Punjab. This was the place where Al-Biruni discovered the circumference and radius of the world in the 11th century. Some of the oldest rock structure is across the Indus Valley.

There is Sufi tourism in Pakistan. We have our incomparable Sufis of the subcontinent. Their message has enriched our land. There is Sikh tourism. We’ve opened it to the world so that now Sikhs can come and perform their religious pilgrimages. There is Hindu tourism. We’re working on the restoration of many Hindu temples. Our Gandhara Trail will be the largest of its kind in the world. Encompassing different religions, it will start with Swat all the way down to Taxila and into Gilgit Baltistan and AJK. The Gandhara Trail will be an inter-faith trail featuring heritage, stupas, relics, old gurdwaras and other holy icons of different faiths.

MT: In the world beyond the pandemic, what is your strategy to have an increase in the local footfall in the scenic or historical areas of Pakistan?

ZB: You must understand, Mehr, that Pakistan has a 220 million population, extremely vibrant, wanting to see the country, wanting to travel. We have a ten million diaspora. Out of which six million is labour and four million are professionals living around the world. They are the ones with a large disposable income.

I’ll share with you an important fact. We had a larger footfall this winter after we lifted the restrictions on travel during the pandemic [when the number of cases considerably decreased] than what we’ve had in the last few summers. Which is when you have the highest footfall in the tourist destinations. Clearly, something good is happening in Pakistan that people are travelling in winter. Traditionally, winter tourism is usually not so big in Pakistan. This winter people even slept in their cars! Every single guest house everywhere was overbooked. Five-star hotels, such as Pearl Continental and Marriot, had high occupancy. With growing awareness, winter tourism has already increased.

Coming back to brand Pakistan, the purpose of the website is to give complete information of tourist and other visit-worthy places. It will also inspire people to make investments in the tourism sector.

What we must focus on post-covid is that with the high volume of footfalls, an unprecedented increase, our tourist locations are not destroyed. Our plan is to make tourist-local administration-police integrated zones. The masterplan is complete.

In one particular area, the plan is to have hotels, varying from one to five stars, a few gas stations, and other essential facilities. The masterplan is to ensure the impossibility of mushroom growth or/and encroachment. Ten zones across the country, next month we’re starting with a beautiful masterplan for Thandiani in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

As government, we’re supposed to make policies and create the infrastructure. The rest, we should leave for the private sector. I think because of our government’s focus on tourism, the interest of the private sector in tourism is immense. Be it building new hotels and restaurants, or be it restoring the historical sites, it’s the first time that I’m seeing so much interest in all these things, particularly from the diaspora.

MT: What are the biggest challenges to turn Pakistan from a best-kept secret to one of the best travel destinations of Asia?

ZB: Challenges are many because there exists a 70-year backlog. First of all, we must address that there is a perception issue. Internationally. That perception issue is going to be handled via our brand Pakistan. But I’m more focused, at the moment, on domestic tourism and our overseas Pakistanis travelling within Pakistan. I think that is the real potential for the next five to ten years for Pakistan’s tourism to take off. Countries like Thailand and Morocco took more than two decades to become hugely popular tourist destinations. We’re not in a rush, and we know we need to do it slowly but steadily. Ours is a holistic plan, one that is in sync with our heritage, our culture, and the sensitivity of these aspects. I think we can harness the potential and demand for tourism of local and overseas Pakistanis in the next five to ten years.

Right now, the biggest challenge for domestic tourism is the infrastructure. There has not been much focus on that. Previous governments didn’t seem to give two hoots about tourism or the infrastructure to get to most of the tourist destinations.

I also think that factors like waste management and the etiquette of being a tourist are of much importance. Our volume of tourism is high. When we launch a new destination 100,000 people show up within the next month. Litter control, pollution, all of that will be managed under the tourism authorities that we’ve created in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. These authorities will have police exclusively for the tourist areas. Irrigation and forest departments will function as one-window operation. Things will be streamlined.

One of our main issues is the insufficient infrastructure. We’ve finished a campaign for 150 public toilets in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This summer these toilets, marked in different colours for women and men, and special ones for the differently abled, will be seen in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s tourist destinations, enhancing the ease of travelling. We’ve outsourced them to private vendors to ensure constant cleaning and maintenance. Facilitation centres and rest areas are some of the short-term facilities that we’re providing as our infrastructure is undergoing improvement at the same time.

As I said earlier, tourism is a science. It’s not just opening up one resort or one particular area where people can go to camp next to a lake or a waterfall. It is about providing the complete holistic arrangement all the way. The change will soon be noticeable in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. Many brown boards will be erected [with directions] to the areas to visit.

One of the most unfortunate things is that many of us are or were unaware of the existence of many of the beautiful sites of heritage, culture and history in Pakistan. Or even scenic landscapes. If the pandemic has done one positive thing, it is to make people discover Pakistan more, and realise and appreciate its beauty more. Now people are visiting places where previously they never ever thought of going.

MT: What role have you in your capacity as Special Assistant to the Prime Minister for Overseas Pakistanis played to strengthen communication between the expatriate Pakistanis and the government of Pakistan?

ZB: Being an overseas Pakistani myself, I have always personally known a big part of the Pakistani diaspora. Our diaspora could be sub-categorised into two: people born and bred abroad or moved a long time ago, the first, second, third generation [families of immigrants]; and our labour [community]. Starting with the first, second and third generation Pakistanis like myself, those of us who are settled abroad, I think, primarily, the connectivity due to the prime minister’s connection [with the diaspora] has been huge. Inflow of remittances and interest in investment in Pakistan is on the increase.

Our links with our American diaspora have strengthened. Because of the geographical proximity our ties with the diasporas in the UAE and the UK were always good, but the American diaspora with its massive potential mostly seemed distant. But now the connection is better than ever.

I’ve created the Oversees Pakistan Advisory Council, which will be launched in the next few weeks. On OPAC, I will have people connected to social welfare, philanthropists, renowned businesspersons and high-achieving professionals, 50-60 people who would have direct contact with the prime minister and me. They would be advising our ministry on certain things.

Connectivity has been great. We’ve had a number of renowned overseas Pakistanis come to Pakistan, and not just me but the foreign office and other ministries have also helped in the process.

The one thing that I want to talk about is what’s closest to my heart: the labour [community]. I was probably the first labour minister to have visited more than a dozen of our labour camps in Qatar and the UAE. I sat with the labourers to find out their problems.

Here, I must give credit to our overseas Pakistanis–may Allah bless them with much more–for their help during the pandemic–tickets [to return home], food items, accommodation, special flights. COVID-19 was the reason for the repatriation of around half a million of our people. With our limited resources, the pressure on Pakistan was more than on most countries. But Pakistan emerged a winner. We managed it quite well. Now the rest of the world has started to recognise that, too.

I pray to God that He gives me more strength to help our labour [community] even further. For once, they feel that their government is standing behind them, talking for them, sticking up for them, listening to their complaints–be it digitally, be it personally, be it through an open-door policy in the ministry. Perhaps that is why when I travel, I receive a great deal of love from people, especially in the GCC countries. It is probably because they feel that this is the first time the prime minister of their country has actually instructed his team to take care of their rights, protect their rights, stand with them. That this is the first time that their government is taking ownership of their issues, be it in prisons, be it in repatriation of dead bodies, be it the labour laws, be it for jobs.

Mehr, I want to share with you that before the pandemic, we sent 970,000 people abroad in the first 18 months of our government. Right before COVID-19 hit, 970,000 people. Almost one million people in 18 months found jobs abroad. Today the number is gone to 1.2 million despite the pandemic. Last month, we sent around 32,000 people despite the pandemic. 1.2 million people in the first 18 months is a record. Thanks to Prime Minister Khan’s connectivity skills with other countries. He truly is be applauded for what he has done. This is the main reason for a substantial increase in Pakistan’s monthly remittances. High numbers and high volumes.

MT: As the representative of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government what are some of the milestones of your work that have aided in creating a positive environment for resolving the issues of the overseas Pakistanis?

ZB: One milestone is sending out the greatest number of Pakistanis ever in the first 18 months [of a new government]. The other milestone is my visits to the labour camps, staying in touch with the labour leaders, listening to their problems, and setting up a portal where they can post their complaints and expect a response.

The Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment had a dubious reputation with its culture of bribery and exploitation. I’m not saying that all the ills have been eliminated, but I can say much of that has come down drastically. That could be another milestone. And that has happened because we’ve made the system biometric. Previously, we didn’t even have the data of the number of people returning to Pakistan. Now we’ve the exact information of who is leaving, when they come back, their entire family history. The system is to ensure that if the need arises, our Overseas Pakistan Foundation can take care of their families accordingly.

We’ve improved our overseas schools. We’re making fast track courts for land disputes; the proposal has been approved by the law ministry, and now we’re going for the actual summary in parliament. It would solve the land disputes of oversees Pakistanis on a fast track basis.

I have asked my office to send you a list of our other initiatives.

(Initiatives of the Ministry sent by the office of Zulfikar Bukhari)

Employees' Old-Age Benefits Institution (EOBI):

- EOBI pension increased from PKR 5,250 to PKR 8,500 – 62% increase

- Revival of stalled projects with rental income of PKR 4 billion plus annually

- Achieved 100% target of 21 billion EOBI collections despite COVID-19

- Pension collection was a manual and cumbersome process; pension to be delivered at home for the elderly and the sick

- 1 Million plus new jobs given overseas, 11.5% increase

- Digital payments to pensioners

Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment:

- One-window biometric enabled transparent operation

- Diversification of country jobs portfolio, new MoUs with Romania, Japan, Kuwait

- Skills training for foreign jobs with Overseas Employment Centre and National Vocational and Technical Training Commission

Overseas Pakistanis Foundation (OPF):

- Improved financial strength of the organisation, first profitable year after four years

- MoU with Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit worth 3.13 million Euro for skills training of returning immigrants

- Financial assistance for welfare of overseas Pakistanis amounting to PKR 246 million disbursed amongst 626 destitute families

- OPF housing and land projects retrieved and revived in Lahore and Islamabad; new projects launched


- WWF labour colony, Zone 5, Islamabad

- 1,500 flats and 500 houses in phase I

- 1,500 flats in phase II

- Serena Hotel in Lahore

- The Hive Tower in Islamabad

- Primaco project I8

COVID-19 related work:

- 412,207 repatriated in one of the world’s largest repatriation operations

- USD 2 million donated by overseas Pakistanis

- Relief efforts via 28 focal persons in five countries, 100s of volunteers

- 5000 plus families given rations, medicines, free air tickets

- Food and supplies, stipends during the lockdown and subsidised air tickets for Pakistani students in Wuhan, China

- Data collection and reintegration of returning Pakistani labour through new job creation and reskilling

MT: How have Prime Minister Khan’s connection with and concern for overseas Pakistanis influenced your work?

ZB: Everything that we have been able to achieve–connectivity with the overseas Pakistanis, connectivity with a state’s leadership, ownership of the [problems] of overseas Pakistanis, interest in investment in Pakistan, and the desire of overseas Pakistanis in their own capacity to help Pakistan–is all because of the prime minister. We are just the people responsible for execution of what they [overseas Pakistanis] wish to commit to the country and to the prime minister. All the good will that has been generated, if anyone thinks it is because of anyone other than Prime Minister Khan, that is simply misleading.

Now people recognise me because of my ministry. And that is primarily because of the prime minister’s confidence in my resolve to follow his vision. This was a ministry tainted with corruption, no one really wanted any responsibility. They just wanted to be left alone to indulge in corruption. Now it is one of the most talked about ministries in Pakistan.

The concept of the ministry [its responsibilities] and overseas Pakistanis was just our labour [community]. It is the prime minister’s vison that this concept evolved to include all overseas Pakistanis. Any Pakistani living aboard, even if they are second, third generation Pakistani.

We have changed the whole ideology of this ministry. From just being labour centric–mind you, it wasn’t even doing any real work for them–to all overseas Pakistanis, and then gelling them together. In the time of dire need like this pandemic, when we needed planes, we needed tickets to pay for the labourers who were jobless, we needed money, food, rations… I mean we collected unbelievable amounts. People just gave with an open heart, and that was simply for one reason: for once, they saw a prime minister and a ministry that were standing behind their people.

MT: You seem to have mastered the art of multitasking. Working with the prime minister, travelling across Pakistan and abroad, your local and international assignments, and political work within Pakistan, what is your secret of attaining the perfect balance?

ZB: I have a great mentor in Prime Minister Khan. I come from a business background in the UK. I was involved in various businesses, so multitasking was always a good skill set to have. With the prime minister as my mentor, it has been easier to represent myself internationally. Of course, my life in the UK [before joining politics and later becoming a member of the cabinet] has helped me in many ways. It helps me keep a good level of productivity.

As far as the travelling is concerned, it is an honour to serve my country and to serve the prime minister. That is what gets us going. What gets us out of bed every morning. Knowing that no matter how hard you are working you have a prime minister who is working twice as hard as you. Prime Minister Khan sets the bar very high. It basically makes us try to match it in some way. Unfortunately, we sometimes fail, but we continue in our efforts to contribute, in our minimal capacity, to help Prime Minister Imran Khan’s cause of a better, a stronger, a pure and a just Pakistan.