Wanna travel to Pakistan with Against the Compass?
We have one scheduled expedition this summer to North Pakistan. 14 days driving the Karakoram Highway, and exploring offbeat valleys of Shimshal and Astore.
August 13th to 26th
As security in the country improves, tourism in Pakistan increases. In just a couple of years, tourism in Pakistan has increased by more than 300%!
Since I came back from my 2-month journey in Pakistan, I have been strongly promoting the country through tens of pictures, stories, and detailed traveling information.
To be honest, very few people are aware of the potential of this country, so everybody gets particularly surprised when they hear my tales of Pakistani hospitality or take a look at my photos:
Really? Is that Pakistan?
However, whenever I convince any of my friends and readers of the outstanding landscape and great people that comprise Pakistan, inevitably, they ask me:
But, is Pakistan safe?
That’s a very valid question but, unfortunately, there is no short answer to it.
Pakistan is such a huge country, which comprises countless different regions, ethnicities, and sub-cultures, that it would be a big mistake to consider it as a whole.
For this reason, I decided to write an analysis which, from a traveling perspective, will show you what the situation is nowadays for travelers going to Pakistan, including which regions are safe and why they are, plus a couple of extra tips which, hopefully, will help you to stay safe during your visit in Pakistan.
Please note that I am not a journalist but just a very curious, observant traveler who asks locals a lot of questions.
Interested in knowing more about the country? Check here the best books and novels on Pakistan
You will definitely be interested in: Is it safe to travel to Afghanistan?
According to Dawn (Pakistan’s leading newspaper), tourism in Pakistan has increased by 317% since 2014, a figure which is easy to believe, especially when you see the large number of travel influencers and content creators who have been promoting tourism in Pakistan recently.
Therefore and, inevitably, the internet is today filled with all sorts of opinions about traveling in Pakistan, some of them being particularly accurate, while others are poor and written by travelers who just spent a few days in the country, claiming that Pakistan is one of the safest countries in the world or that they felt very safe during their visit.
Seriously, what does feeling safe mean?
Unfortunate events such as car accidents, kidnappings, and terrorist attacks tend to happen unexpectedly, right when you felt safe, no matter in which country you are in, so saying that you felt safe just because nothing happened is kind of naive.
I love Pakistan but, unlike many Westerners who have been there, I will not come and tell you that Pakistan is one of the safest countries in the world.
Trust me, it’s not, and if there is anyone who is telling you the contrary, perhaps, they should be more well-informed.
So, is Pakistan safe?
Well, the answer is way more complicated than a YES or a NO and that’s why I decided to write this post.
That being said, in my opinion, most places in Pakistan are completely safe, more and more every day, but you should know that the country also contains some relatively dangerous areas and, even in some touristic areas, the police may assign you an armed escort, for free.
They are not giving this service to a random foreigner just for fun but because, potentially, there might be a real threat.
Nevertheless, controversially, some areas of Pakistan are safe for tourists and, if you travel with an extra, tiny bit of caution, you will, definitely, have one of your greatest experiences ever.
Every time the Western media talks about Pakistan, it is not to show you how great its Himalayan mountains are.
Instead, they only mention it when something really awful is going on and, by awful, I mean any negative event caused by Islamist terrorists.
From countless terrorist attacks to the place where, supposedly, Bin Laden was killed; and the birth-country of Malala, the girl who was shot by the Taliban when they took over her region in Pakistan and has won the Nobel peace prize; since the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan hasn’t really got a good reputation in the Western world. Not really.
However, while it’s true that many of these events happened, there a few things you need to know:
And, most importantly, so far, there aren’t any reports from tourists who got into trouble during their visit.
That’s what the media doesn’t tell us.
As I said, safety in Pakistan largely depends on the region you may be heading to.
That’s why I decided to make this detailed breakdown for you.
These are the most dangerous areas in Pakistan and the ones which appear more often in the news.
However, you should know that it is very difficult to go there as a tourist.
Bordering Iran and Afghanistan, the mainly deserted southwestern province of Pakistan is the most dangerous and unstable region in the country, the main reason being the fact that the border with Afghanistan is out of control, hence many Taliban cross it freely.
In Balochistan, there is a real kidnapping danger, the capital Quetta is continuously witnessing terrorist attacks, and there have been several attacks targeting foreign Chinese workers, the last big one in 2019 in a hotel where Chinese workers where staying.
This province should be avoided but, guess what: visiting Balochistan requires a special permit which is extremely complicated to obtain.
Your only chance to enter this region is if you plan to cross the Pakistan-Iran border, which is actually open but, even then, you will be escorted by armed police until you exit Balochistan. Caravanistan has written a detailed report about it.
Eva Zu Beck is the only traveler I know who traveled around Balochistan, but she was sponsored by the Government, and you can watch her video here.
A province in northwestern Pakistan which borders Afghanistan and Balochistan.
The Tribal Areas is a semi-autonomous province which is mainly inhabited by Pashtuns, an ethnic group with very strong fundamentalist ideas about Islam.
This is the least developed province in Pakistan and a region where the Pakistani Government has very little control.
On top of this, due to the proximity with the Taliban-Afghanistan, the Tribal Areas is dangerous for even Pakistanis themselves.
However, like neighboring Balochistan, you need a special permit which is very hard to get. Good luck!
Do you use a VPN when you travel? Remember that, in this type of countries, some websites might be blocked and your online activity might be monitored by the Government. Therefore, in order to navigate safely, you should use a VPN. Read my tutorial:
How to find (and why use) the best VPN for traveling
These areas are mostly safe but you should visit them with an extra eye of caution.
Peshawar is the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, a province also inhabited by Pashtuns, the most conservative people in Pakistan.
In Peshawar, terrorist attacks do happen but they are very rare.
In addition, there is a significant community of people from the Tribal Areas but you can easily avoid the areas where they live.
Here, it’s best to dress like a local, in a salwar kameez and, if possible, to hang out and walk around with local friends. I met people through Couchsurfing and everything went really well and smoothly.
You may also be interested in this deep country analysis about safety in the Middle East
For a long time, the beautiful Swat Valley was in the eye of the Western media because, in 2007, the Taliban took control of the region, originating a bloody war and killing thousands of innocent people.
Today, the Swat Valley is a peaceful region but you should always keep your eyes open, as it is an extremely conservative place.
In Swat, you may be assigned an armed guard but it depends on the day and the mood of the police. Actually, I didn’t get one but I know other travelers who did.
Also, you should know that, occasionally, the area is restricted to tourism without previous notice, requiring a travel permit called NOC.
My friend Ihsan from Swat Backpackers is a trekking guide who can arrange it for you.
The Kalash Valleys are home to an ethnic community who don’t follow Islam but an ancient Pagan culture called Kalash.
Due to their proximity to the Taliban-controlled area of Nuristan, in Afghanistan, this small region has always been under Taliban threat.
In fact, in 2009, a group of insurgent Taliban managed to cross the border and killed tens of people.
Since then, security has highly improved and the Kalash Valleys have lived in peace. However, just try to be careful about where you go, especially if you are hiking near the border.
Most likely, at your arrival in Chitral, you will be assigned an armed guard.
If you want to know more about the area close to the border, read my story from the day I sneaked into an Afghan village.
Despite being home to a large expat community, the largest city in Pakistan is a well-known place for its violent crime. In fact, Karachi has one of the highest crime rates in the whole of Asia.
However, in the last couple of years, the situation has relatively improved but crime can still happen.
Don’t bring valuable belongings with you at night and, if you are alone, ask trust-worthy locals which areas should be avoided.
Very little is known about Pakistani Kashmir, as foreigners are not allowed to get in. Being a region that has been disputed between India and Pakistan since their independence in 1947, for decades, Kashmir has been a troubled place.
I don’t know about any foreigner who has been there but, according to local friends, it’s not a dangerous place anymore.
By the way, you may have heard a few rumors saying that a NOC for visiting Kashmir isn’t required anymore. They are just rumors and, so far, not a single traveler has managed to go there independently.
These are of Pakistan are very safe to travel.
The relatively new capital of the country is, definitely, the safest city in Pakistan.
With plenty of checkpoints everywhere, the Government has invested so many resources in security, as this is where the Pakistani elite live, as well as plenty of foreigners.
You may have heard of some terrorist attacks happening in Lahore but, to be honest, there were only a few and they always targeted specific places and people.
In fact, these attacks were no worse than the ones which happened in European capitals, such as Paris or London. The likelihood of being affected by one of these incidents is extremely low.
Other than that, Lahore is a safe city filled with plenty of welcoming people and happiness.
Fortunately, the most beautiful province in Pakistan is also the safest one.
Home to the Karakoram Highway and some of the highest mountains on Earth, Gilgit-Baltistan is where you will spend most of your time.
Most of its inhabitants are Shia, a more liberal branch of Islam and, perhaps, one of the reasons why there are no Islamist radicals.
This was the first and last incident that ever happened in Gilgit-Baltistan and, to be honest, the authors were Pashtuns from KPK province, not Gilgit.
Please keep in mind that this incident was an exception and, after that, security has drastically improved.
The two provinces where Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi belong to are the least visited safe areas in Pakistan.
Here, almost no real incidents that could have affected foreigners have been reported and, actually, you can move around freely, without any restriction.
In this area, the train is the easiest and most comfortable way of transportation. I didn’t spend much time here but, regarding security, I didn’t find any major issues.
I only found that, in many cities, most budget hotels are not allowed to host foreigners.
Lost with Purpose has a great guide to travel in Sindh Province.
Remember to read my backpacking guide and travel itinerary to Pakistan to learn more about all these safe regions
Is Pakistan safe for women?
Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer to this, for several reasons.
First of all, you should know that I went to Pakistan as a solo man, so my knowledge about female travel in Pakistan is limited and based on what other women told me.
What I can tell you is that, if you go to Pakistan with a man, either your partner or a friend, you should be totally fine.
However, according to many women, if you travel there as a solo female, safety will depend on a large variety of factors, ranging from your traveling experience to the regions you visit, how you behave, how you dress, etc.
I’m not the most qualified person to talk about this topic, however, but Spanish traveler Leti Lagarda backpacked in the country by herself for 2 months, and has written a compelling guide about it which you can read here.
You can also watch this video about traveling safely as a woman:
Heads-up: in Pakistan, people drive like crazy and accidents do happen frequently.
In my opinion, the roads are the only real danger in Pakistan not only because the locals are nuts but also because, in the Northern Areas, some mountain roads are just dangerous by themselves.
However, I wouldn’t say that driving in Pakistan is more dangerous than in India or other developing countries with crazy driving, such as Egypt.
Actually, I think that driving in countries like Saudi Arabia or Oman is even more dangerous, as there the roads are good and the locals drive fancy cars, which translates into very high speeding. Saudi Arabia is, by far, the place where I have been most afraid in a car.
Anyways, long story short: the roads in Pakistan are as dangerous as in other developing countries but, if this is a concern for you, perhaps you should hire a local guide to drive you around.
In order to understand Pakistan’s complexity, remember to check the best books on Pakistan politics, history, novels and travelogues!
Like I said on numerous occasions, it’s highly recommended to wear a salwar kameez, the typical Pakistani dress, especially in KPK province.
This way, you won’t call much attention to yourself.
In Pakistan, Couchsurfing is a big deal and a great way to meet trustworthy, hospitable locals who will try to help you immensely on your journey.
I’ve never been through so many police controls as in Pakistan. From Islamabad to Gilgit along the Karakoram Highway, I passed ten different checkpoints in one single day, and at each one I had to give a passport copy and register.
The police were continuously interrogating me: Why are you here? Where are you going? They are actually pretty cool and their only objective is to check for your personal security.
Don’t be afraid. In these areas, there has been some real trouble in the past, so they just don’t want to expose you to any kind of danger.
Pakistani Intelligence is one of the best secret services in the world. No matter where you go, they will know who you are and where you are. One day, while trekking around the Astore Valley, one random local guy in salwar kameez approached me and said:
You are the Spanish, right?
He was a member of the Pakistani Intelligence and, for three days, they had been following me and looking after my safety. Actually, the Pakistani Intelligence is one of the reasons why Pakistan has not become a failed state like Afghanistan.
Except for the dangerous areas, I’ve never heard of any tourist kidnappings in Pakistan. However, just be careful when you travel in KPK province, including Peshawar and Swat Valley.
Dress like the locals and, depending on the place, don’t go out alone at night.
So, is it safe to travel to Pakistan? The shortest answer I could give you is that it really depends on where you go. Some areas of Pakistan are extremely dangerous whereas others are absolutely safe for tourists.
It’s important to do some proper research beforehand and, if you go to a sensitive area like Peshawar or the Swat Valley, just travel with caution. If you do, Pakistan will reward you with your best experience ever.