Most Third World airports look alike. Dilapidated facilities highlight a nation's past rather than its future. Long lines greet arriving fliers as bored functionaries languidly check visas and stamp passports. Overloaded luggage carousels haphazardly disgorge bloated bags as waiting passengers elbow forward. Crowds swarm as visitors exit customs. Hired drivers press to the front of the mob, waving signs with barely legible names. Would-be guides approach exiting Westerners seeking business. Outside cars honk wildly as they fight for position. Chaos reigns.
Kind of like JFK airport in New York City without the charm, some might say.
Still, the pandemonium in Islamabad initially seemed harmless enough. It wasn't hard to leave. Once I got through security the only impediment was traffic, particularly getting out of the parking lot. I was a bit disconcerted when my driver disappeared for 20 minutes to get the car. I was sure he was coming back, but still, after having been on the road for more than 24 hours and arriving at around 2:30 a.m., I started having visions of being abandoned on a traffic island amid the swirl of pedestrians and cars. He eventually showed, however, full of apologies for the delay.
The real fun was trying to fly home. Now the mob was concentrating, not dispersing, attempting to push through a couple of narrow lanes to get through the initial security screening before checking in. I was approached by a couple of official porters, which seemed a waste since I only had a backpack and carry-on. But I soon found myself in the middle of total gridlock, as families with carts, bags piled high, tried to push past each other. The line barely inched forward.
A porter elbowed his way through to me—quite an impressive feat by itself—picked up my bag, raised it over his head, and just started shoving his way forward, inviting me to follow. I soon found myself at the front of the line, through the initial security search, and at my airline check-in. I felt a bit embarrassed, but being terribly rude and obnoxious was a lot better than spending an hour or more trying to cover the same ground! He happily accepted U.S. dollars and I considered the money well spent.
Once I managed to get through passport control and the second security check, I found an uncomfortable, crowded waiting area. I decided that spending $10 for the executive lounge was good value—only to have the power promptly go out after I sat down. Then both (full) flights boarded from the same gate, jamming the entire winding concourse from top to bottom. Again, I decided that politeness didn't pay and not so gently pushed ever forward. Those of us on the later flight were pulled aside and told to wait for buses outside. Once on the plane we sat another 40 minutes before everyone else made it on board, for a late departure.
Anyone traveling in the Third World is likely to have similar stories. On one of my trips to Kabul I encountered a similar crowd crush to get inside the terminal, supplemented by customs officials shaking down a colleague. Other airports are more confusing than forbidding. Some smaller facilities are downright primitive.
However, even if chaos is commonplace in other nations' airports, it is a dumb way for an important country to run the airport serving its most developed city and capital. Islamabad is a planned development with a concentration of universities and home to a diverse national and international community; the city is to be Pakistan's showcase. Yet it is a bizarre face to show if Pakistanis want more tourists and businessmen visit.
The institutionalized inefficiency sharply contrasted with the politeness, even kindness of individual Pakistanis, including at the airport. The clerk for my passport line just got up and left, forcing my line to merge with the next one. Instead of objecting, one fellow motioned me over and patted me on the back. Perhaps it was just par for the course for him, but he certainly made it easier for me.
The airport was just one step, however. Want a visa? The form coldly announced that the process takes four to six weeks. There is no expedited process—China promises delivery within a week and for a little extra cash will give you one the same day. I used a visa service to avoid making multiple trips to the Pakistani embassy; the owner told me that clients occasionally had to reschedule trips because the visas came late. When desperate travelers called the embassy, he said, they were rudely rebuffed and told that personnel were "very busy."
Some of this may reflect politics, and the often strained relationship between Washington and Islamabad. Still, whatever satisfaction Pakistani diplomats may feel sticking it to overbearing Americans, the result hurts the Pakistani people. India is renowned for its bureaucracy, but I found getting a visa for that nation to be far easier. And while Delhi's airport is messy and chaotic, I never found myself wondering if I had been foolish arriving only three hours before my flight's departure.
Of course, getting there is less important than what you do while there. Pakistan is a troubled land, a formal democracy with weak a civilian government and dominant army. There is a tolerant, more secularized elite; last month Lahore hosted the inaugural Lahore Literary Festival, which followed a similar celebration in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city. However, liberals face a violent challenge from fundamentalist forces which have grown more radical over the years.
I met with friends from the Istanbul Network for Liberty, who were debating Islam and freedom. Views of the future were sharply divided. Some argued that the situation had improved over a few years ago, after the murder of Benazir Bhutto, while others feared conflict among contending forces.
A week after I visited a mob invaded a Christian neighborhood in Lahore, burning down more than 100 homes and two score businesses. A few days later Sunni radicals set off a bomb in a Muslim Shia district in Karachi. This violence occurred on the second anniversary of the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who served as the national government's minister for minorities. While there has been some official pushback against abusive prosecutions for blasphemy, disproportionately used against Christians, Pakistan remains very illiberal society in many areas.
Islamabad was relatively safe because of the overwhelming security. There are periodic checkpoints and barricades on the streets. The Marriott where I stayed was a veritable fortress. A decade ago I walked into the lobby off of the street. No longer. The hotel was subsequently bombed; now everyone has to go through security in a separate building on the street before entering the lobby.
Of course, the mere possibility of an incident will keep some foreigners away. The typically befuddled tourist would not be wise to wander throughout much of the country. Moreover, potential political and social instability inevitably makes Pakistan a riskier investment.
Unfortunately, the government also inhibits development through its bad economic policies. In the latest Economic Freedom of the World Pakistan is tied for 111-114 out of 144 countries. Bangladesh, a violent offshoot of Pakistan, ranks higher. So does Haiti, renowned in the Caribbean for chaos and violence. Islamabad is tied with bitter rival India and internationally sanctioned Iran.
Pakistan rates worst on legal system/property rights, an essential for economic activity. Its record on free trade is poor. On other economic measures the government does a bit better. Ironically, over the last three decades Islamabad has improved in four of five areas, gaining a modest boost overall. However, other countries have done even better, leaving Pakistan relatively worse off—and behind the competition when it comes to attracting investment. Overall Pakistan dropped from 80 in 1980 to 104 in 2010.
One highlight is frequent power blackouts. Pakistan's tangled problem of public subsidies, widespread nonpayment, endemic corruption, plant breakdowns, inadequate capacity, and illegal connections—even after the government has received hundreds of millions in foreign aid to reform the industry—remains intractable. The hotel had its own generators to cope with the routine outages, but most residences and businesses are not so blessed. One estimate is that electricity problems alone cut the nation's GDP by two percent.
Pakistan is a land of great potential. Some of its troubles are not of its own making—artificial national boundaries crafted by British colonial overlords. Other problems reflect deep-seated religious and ethnic antagonisms.
However, there is no excuse for a government which wants to be taken seriously in global councils of power to disable its own economy and create an airport which barely works. If Pakistan can build a nuclear weapon, compete with dominant India, and spawn a productive, world-spanning diaspora, why can't it create an orderly process for departing airport passengers?