The once mighty Ravi river – whose banks upheld Takht-e-Lahore in bygone ages – is barely a landmark in the sprawling city now; gracing the names of a few dozen signposts and restaurants.
Beyond the choked confines of the city, however, the meandering river has found new life. South of Lahore, an hour’s drive away, the river has become home to a new hub of leisure, adventure and entertainment. Grouped around Head Balloki Reservoir are a growing number of resorts, country clubs and tourist attractions, both private and government-owned, which provide a verdant escape from the concrete confines of the city.
We sat down with Hina Ejaz, CEO of Green Fields Country Club – one of the largest and most developed resorts in the country – to discuss how her venture rose to prominence, and the challenges faced by Punjab’s tourism industry.
Beginning her professional career as an anchor at CNBC, Hina Ejaz recalls her challenges in entrepreneurship vividly, and hence pays special attention to women empowerment when outlining her vison for Green Fields.
“This is a passion project, we wanted to create something which Pakistan has never experienced before. Based on 120 acres our resort is first of its kind, offering entertainment and leisure activities on par with the rest of the world. We wanted people to feel like they’ve stepped out onto the British countryside when they walk our lawns, or feel like they’ve been transported to a Thai island retreat when they enter our pool area. Thankfully, our visitors have been suitably shocked when they come to Green Fields”
She explained further that: we didn’t want to create another boutique resort and hotel, we wanted to be innovative, and our innovation began with our hiring policy.”
“50 percent of all our staff is women, across all job descriptions. We offer health and learning facilities on the job, and I can proudly say the living standards and exposure to the outside world has increased significantly in the local areas surrounding our resort.”
This brings the conversation to the Head Balloki Reservoir area, and how Green Fields sets itself apart from the other resorts.
“Our facilities for holding corporate events, team building exercises and getaways are unparalleled. Our biggest clients are MNCs, who prefer to come here instead of taking their teams outside Pakistan to get the same service. We offer the best of what the rest of the world offers.”
She adds, “this money would’ve been spent elsewhere, would’ve gone outside Pakistan, instead it is now being re-invested into our own economy, I think it is a great for Pakistan.”
“But our clientele is a mixed bag, we are a great location to host destination weddings, and many Pakistanis residing abroad, who want to share their special moments with their families back home and also have a beautiful and luxurious event, chose Green Fields.”
“Beyond this, day visitors and families on overnight vacations also make up a big chunk of our clients.”
“Our vison is clear, and so are our expansion plans. A business that doesn’t grow stagnates, although we haven’t finalised the exact timeline for this but we are looking to set up similar a resort in the northern areas, and also UAE.”
The conversation shifts to the challenges faced by the industry. Visitors must’ve been reduced because of the pandemic, tourism – especially hotels and wedding facilities – have been hard hit by travel restrictions, we asked.
Yet, Hina expressed her joy and relief at how Green Fields was spared the worst.
“After the initial month or so when everything was shut down, we reopened and strictly followed all government SOPs and guidelines. We are based on 120 acres, so it was easy for us to distance visitors in their own sections. In fact, after a while, people from far away places like Karachi and Multan started coming to us because here they could escape the dreary atmosphere in the cities.”
However, she explains, challenges still remain for the resorts in the area: “We have set this country club independently and with our own investment, we are quite thankful for that, but we still hope for some government facilitation for tourism.”
“This area has become a hub for resort tourism and entertainment; there are many more facilities on the river itself, yet the infrastructure connecting this area with the rest of the country is quite poor. That is the one thing we as private entrepreneurs can’t fix.”
“Infrastructure development would not only help us, but the other resorts in the area, as well as the local residents; the government needs to focus on this.”
She goes into detail about how the tourism sector could be improved.
“Right now the government has no coherent policy in place for the facilitation of tourism. We are given no subsidies, concessions or any support. For example, we need to import rides and golf carts from China, yet the import duties are extremely high. We have spent around 15 million USD to set up Green Fields, not everyone will be able to do so.”
“Other industries get government concessions when importing machinery, tourism gets nothing. We need government support to push tourism, it won’t happen on its own.”