A Year of Promises

Seen as an indicator of peace and normalcy, tourism sector may face an acute shortage of infrastructure in future. Despite rising concerns, there is a clear lack of political will to elevate the standard of tourism infrastructure. Shams Irfan meets some of the stakeholders to understand the issues concerning the sector in Kashmir Valley.

An illuminated hotel in Gulmarg during winters. Photo: Bilal Bhadur

In Kashmir, March is considered as the crucial month for tourism sector as most of the advance bookings take place during this month only. “March is important for us in terms of business as domestic tourists plan their holidays during this month only,” said Azim Tuman, President Houseboat Owners Association Kashmir. After the arrival of record breaking tourists last year, the state’s tourism department was optimistic to register an increase of around 30 percent in tourist arrivals this year. But that could not happen because of huge cancellations post Afzal Guru hanging episode.

However, Kashmir tourism got a boost earlier this month when Gulmarg was accorded the best All Seasons Destination of the world by Pacific Asia Travel Writers Association (PATWA) at ITB Berlin, the world’s leading travel trade show. “Such awards hardly change anything on ground,” said Ashraf, a local hotel owner who blames government for showing indifference towards people who are associated with the sector.

The Kashmir Restaurant and Hotel Owners Association (KHARA) blames government for making senseless rules which hamper their businesses at the peak of tourist season. “Government is only interested in numbers. All they want is to break records by boasting about tourist arrival figures,” said Tariq, an agitated hotel owner in Srinagar, who had applied for a no objection certificate (NOC) from State Pollution Control Board two years back.

The state government has frozen permission for all construction and repair works related to tourism infrastructures in Pahalgam and Boulevard areas in Srinagar since 2009. “Owing to two-decade-long turmoil in the state, tourism related structures have deteriorated. We are not even able to cater to the basic needs of the tourists,” said Mohammad Showkat Chowdhary, President, KHARA. “We don’t want government to remove the ban altogether, but at least allow the existing infrastructure to be upgraded,” Chowdhary rues.

Last year, KHARA presented its ‘Tourism Policy’ to the state government demanding full industrial benefits for tourism related units. “It is time that government come out with a blue print of its policy on tourism,” said Chowdhary. The document presented to J&K’s tourism minister, Director of Tourism and other concerned officials demanded 30 percent subsidy on total cost of renovation and upgradation of projects, uninterrupted water and power supply on industrial tariff and single window fast track approval and permission (NOCs from all the concerned departments) system. “Present system for grant of permission is lengthy and time consuming. It needs to be changed if we want to keep pace with the world,” Chowdhary feels.

While red-tapism has affected the process, the state government is desperate to explore all options to attract tourists to conflict hit Kashmir. “We are looking at all options,” said Talat Parvez, Director Tourism. “We want tourists to explore Kashmir beyond Gulmarg and Pahalgam.”

Encouraged by a record tourist footfall in last two years, the tourism department announced a number of initiatives to attract tourists in Kashmir. Inspired by the world famous tourist destinations like Switzerland, Germany and Belgium, plans were made to transform villages around known tourist locations like Gulmarg and Pahalgam into tourist villages.

But industry insiders, tour and travel operators, hoteliers and all other major stakeholders associated with tourism sector are cynical about the success of such plans in Kashmir. “In a conservative society like ours, people will never allow outsiders to stay in their houses,” said Riyaz Ahmad Lone, a Pahalgam based hotelier. “These concepts are for ultra-modern, western societies. In Kashmir, spending money on such things doesn’t make sense,” said Ayesha Saleem, the owner of New Peak Hotel in Srinagar and member KHARA.

But the tourism department has already identified villages around Pahalgam and Gulmarg and announced packages for people who are willing to transform a portion of their house into guesthouses. “The idea is to help tourists get an understanding of the local culture,” said Parvez. “We want to decongest Pahalgam and Gulmarg,” he added.

With most of the tourists visiting these two destinations, the demand for infrastructure has affected the fragile ecology of these regions. “People with muscle power and political connections have constructed large concrete buildings in Gulmarg and Pahalgam. Nobody is there to stop them,” said a local environmentalist in Pahalgam on condition of anonymity. “Pahalgam is a virtual concrete jungle now. People have even encroached upon the famous Golf Course there.”

= In a damage control bid, the state tourism department started exploring options so that other lesser known potential tourist destinations could be taken up for development to ease pressure on Pahalgam, Gulmarg and Dal Lake. “Our thrust is on lesser known tourist destinations like Manasbal, Yousmarg, Sinthan Top, etc. We want hoteliers to invest in these locations,” said Parvez.

He said the tourism department has already identified certain activity-specific villages in Kashmir which will be highlighted and promoted as must-visit destinations in Kashmir. “We have a village which is entirely into wicker baskets making, another village is famous for shawl making and so on,” said Parvez.

A view of famous tourist resort Gulmarg, Kashmir. Photo: Bilal Bhadur

Parvez is optimistic that the tourism department can promote tourism as well as local crafts simultaneously with proper planning and participation of villagers. Brushing aside suggestions that ITB Berlin was a failure, Parvez talked enthusiastically about his department’s future plans. He is keen to promote Kashmir in such a way that it offers something for everybody. Be it religious tourism, medical tourism, showcasing cultural heritage of Sheh-e-Khaas (old city Srinagar), promotion of Kashmir as private healthcare destination, adventure sports, extreme motor rally etc., the state tourism department is leaving no stones unturned to grab eyeballs.

“If people from Kashmir can travel to as far as Ajmer and Haji Ali shrines, why can’t people come to visit Dastgeer Sahab Shrine or Dargah Hazratbal,” Parvez argues.

“These are just desperate attempts,” said an industry expert who wishes not to be named. “We lack basic facilities like road connectivity, water supply, electricity, etc. Take care of these issues first and then think of imitating Europe,” he argues.

Last year, the tourism department started water cruise along River Jhelum amid much fanfare for promotion of tourism. But the plan failed miserably as river banks laden with waste and excreta failed to attract any tourists. “There are hardly any public conveniences in Srinagar. And if there are any, they are either dirty or defunct,” said Maitrey Gnaguly, a tourist from Bengal who is on a honeymoon trip to Kashmir.

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