Chief Minister Mufti Sayeed used part of the holidays between the closure of Durbar at Jammu and reopening in Srinagar in reaching out to hospitality sector and reel-life stakeholders in Mumbai. Though the response is positive, people back home are talking of the basic issues that are on backburner

Dr Haseeb Drabu, Mufti Sayeed with Dilip Kumar and his wife Saira Bano.
Dr Haseeb Drabu, Mufti Sayeed with Dilip Kumar and his wife Saira Bano.

For almost a decade now, the two states feeding Kashmir’s luxury tourism are Maharashtra and Gujarat. So when Chief Minister Mufti Sayeed flew to Mumbai for an interaction with the stakeholders, it was responded positively.

Expected to be back home on the eve of reopening of his Durbar on May 4, the reports pouring in from Mumbai suggest the visit was quite positive. His team had a long talk with nearly 125 tour operators from Mumbai and Pune on Thursday and later that evening a number of Bollywood producers and directors joined him at dinner in the Taj.

“In both the interactions, he (Mufti) was quite forthright and spoke from heart,” one official present in the meetings said. “His visit, he said, has nothing to do with his continuation as J&K’s ruler but is key for improving the status of the tourism as an economy.” Mufti made passionate appeals in both the meetings that people in J&K, suffering for a long time, could be helped greatly if Kashmir is back as the preferred destination for millions of domestic tourists.

During these interactions, Mufti and his finance minister Dr Haseeb Drabu indicated various initiatives that PDP-BJP government is planning to implement. Mufti said he is planning to opt for public-private participation in tourism sector, end red tape for improving facilitation for business, create special weekend golfing packages for the high-end sports lovers and re-categorize the house-boats so that visitors have a choice.

However, the best idea that was unfolded in Mumbai was making Gulmarg Davos of India. Every winter World Economic Forum, a Swiss non-profit, flies world’s top business leaders for interactions and knowledge exchange to Davos. Some of the major decision-making in global business takes place there. Mufti wants the same to happen in Gulmarg in Indian context. Drabu said their government will create special package suiting India’s top 4000 companies for interacting, policy making and strategizing their businesses in India. Kashmir had taken off as a conference and convention spot in last few years but September 2014 floods reversed the trend.

“It (Davos) will be something that will change Kashmir as a destination,” says Umar Khursheed Tramboo, the man behind Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa at Gulmarg. “This is the idea that needs to be chased because it entails a major change.”

The other major decision that was conveyed to Bollywood biggies was that J&K government will work with the reel-world through a single window system. “It was conveyed to them that they will get all the permissions between two to seven days, one officer said. “Their shooting will be facilitated on priority because this will help restore the confidence that was lost in floods.”

Apart from score odd biggies who attended the main meeting, Shahrukh Khan and Dilip Kumar had separate meetings with Mufti and Drabu. Khan was keen to get back to Kashmir for shooting as early as possible. Bollywood has restored its Kashmir connections as before and after the floods a number of film and TV serials were shot in Kashmir.

But the issues that travel trade had flagged in Srinagar cropped up in Mumbai too. Air tickets were the primary problem. Once the tourist season takes off, the tickets on Delhi/Mumbai-Srinagar sector get costly than Delhi-Bangkok. This is key crisis in improving footfalls to Kashmir during peak season. To this issue, Dr Haseeb Drabu promised operators that the government will take some aircrafts on lease to balance the souring ticket costs. It remains to be seen how many aircrafts will be rented and which percentage of traffic will it manage this season.

Regardless of the impact Mufti’s Mumbai sojourn will have on the hospitality sector, the issues being talked about in Srinagar is why the government is not spearing enough time to get its house in order. Floods have severely impacted the society and most of the tourist infrastructure is still stinking and is in a bad shape. Though the government has started working for the rehabilitation of the impacted businesses, the pace is still a huge question mark.

The second major problem is the functioning of various tourism development authorities. Some authorities have worked with industry in such a way that entire landscape is changed for the worst. Sonamarg is the key instances and the government is yet to offer any direction for undoing the losses. In fact, Mufti’s darling destination Pahalgam is facing serious issues as the greedy trade is playing havoc with the ecology. The spot has witnessed massive vandalization of the green enclosures over the years.

“Right now, when the residents in Srinagar feel it is not worth living, especially after the floods, how can the destination be sold,” says Rifat, a school teacher who treks between Budgam and Srinagar daily. “Cannot we give priority to a road that is worth driving and is dust free?”

Kashmir is otherwise topping the list of destinations that witnesses more dis-satisfied tourists than other places. This is despite the fact that Rajasthan gets more than 30 million tourists and neighbouring Himachal nearing 10 million. Getting more people to visit at a time when the basic infrastructure is in shambles might prove a bad investment, some people feel. There is no harm in having a trickle till pressing issues are taken care of.

Official sources, however, say the interventions have started. The government intends to change the uniform of the tourist police and retrain them to handle tourists better. They are going to look completely different from the rest of the flock and will have a different set of skills. Chief Minister, reports say, has given a go-ahead. And a top designer stands hired to design the new uniforms. But that is symbolism. Is not it?


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