“Street shows across globe help in assuring tour operators that Kashmir is safe to visit”

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Tourism department is hopeful that street shows in foreign countries will help bring back high spending foreign tourists back to Kashmir.  Director tourism, Talat Parvez tells Saima Bhat that Kashmir is all braced up for new tourist season as private investors are pumping money into the sector like never before

Director-Tourism-Talat

Kashmir Life (KL): How do you see the growth of tourism department since you became its director?

Talat Parvez (TP): It has come up very nicely. We have been able to improve the services, diversify the places of visit and also diversify the tourism products like introduction of adventure tourism activities. We have introduced new tourism destinations including some villages to an already long list of must see places. Tourism growth has been there viz-a-viz the per capita income from the tourism sources; this is how I see the growth.

KL: There are still a number of countries who have not withdrawn travel advisories against Kashmir. Is tourism department doing anything about it?

TP: This is an ongoing process. These countries access the security situation from time to time and then issue advisory to its citizens. Many countries who have accessed the improved security situation lifted advisories; others will soon follow.

The biggest challenge is to assure foreign tourists that things have improved on ground and Kashmir is a safe place to visit.  Right now our focus is to convey this segment of tourists that Kashmir is a unique travel experience where all sorts of facilities are available for them. Once that message is conveyed properly advisories will go automatically.

KL: What are the new tourist infrastructures that have come up or are in the pipeline?

 TP: Lately private players are showing keen interest in tourist sector. There is huge investment happening in this sector as people have realized the potential of tourism industry. We have people investing in 5 star hotels, cruise boats and existing infrastructure is also being refurbished to meet the demand of the tourists. So there are many positive things happening in tourist sector. We encourage private investors with incentives and financial support.

Besides that our department is continuously adding new infrastructure to help make tourists stay pleasant and memorable.

KL: How is golf helping tourism?

TP: Golf is actually a niche product. It attracts a particular class of tourists who come for official meetings and also take time off to play golf. It is an additional attraction for such tourists.

KL: Is there any possibility of mixing sports with leisure?

TP: Our adventure tourism itself is a mix of sports and activity. We have made volleyball part of winter games. We already had snow cycling, kayaking sport, white water kayaking, flat water kayaking, rafting, and paragliding and now we plan to add yachting in winter sports.  Polo and arching is also being revived. We link sports with tourism.

KL: How much money does tourism department make from JKTDC and Cable Car Corporation?

TP: That can be answered by the respective corporations but recently, the Cable Car Corporation has revealed that they earn Rs 35 crores annually and JKTDC makes a profit of about Rs 50 lakhs per annum.  But JKTDC has huge expenditure to maintain staff and services. It is a fast growing corporation as it earns Rs 3 crore annually. I am hopeful that this year it will cross 3 crore mark.

KL: How much does tourism add to the state’s economy annually?

TP: Tourism Department is not revenue oriented. It is promotional, regulatory and facilitator.

Only JKTDC and the Cable Car Corporation are business oriented operations.  Main commercial operations are done by the private players. Our main revenue earning destinations are Pahalgham, Gulmarg and Srinagar, generating annual business worth rupees 150, 200 and 400 crore respectively.  Tourism sector contributes around rupees 1000 crore annually.

KL: Why are tourists being permitted to come with big vehicles into the city? Why can’t these vehicles stop in the periphery so that local small transport takes over and makes a bit of money as is happening in Leh and other places?

TP:  Because our roads don’t cater to big vehicles, parking for them and their maneuvering on congested roads is impossible. We don’t have flyovers in the requisite form giving the single way of traffic flow.

If tourists get struck up in a jam it is not a good sign. That’s why we prefer vehicles that are 20-23 seater so that they get maneuvered and parking facilities for such vehicles.

We always have taxi associations, stands who are actually operating in a particular region, we are going to regulate it this way only. This year all taxi operators and tourist service providers will be asked to operate from a particular place, may be from a bus stand or taxi stand so that they operate in a regulated manner and don’t interchange or intrude in somebody else’s area. Like in Ladakh, indigenous people are earning from the indigenous business of tourism, we will regulate it here also so that everybody finds out a chance to earn from the tourism sector.

KL: How has Bollywood helped Kashmir tourism?

TP:  It has helped in a very big way because we have been popular with Indian domestic tourists through Bollywood.  Around 99 per cent tourists are domestic tourists who come from India and they know us through Bollywood – Kashmir ki Kali, Arzoo, Junglee are some of the films shot in Kashmir. Everybody has a dream to visit Kashmir.

It is only Bollywood, which has played multiple roles in getting this destination popular with the Indian minds. Bollywood is helping Kashmir once again become the number one tourist destination.

If you see the overall tourism scenario in India it is pilgrim based and Andra Pradesh has taken number one position because 22 crore pilgrim tourists visit there. It is not for leisure tourists. For leisure they prefer to come to Kashmir, Kerala, Rajasthan and at the most Agra. Beyond this, hardly any state gets tourists, so we want to take this position back as we had earlier.

KL: Why is most tourist inflow from Pune- Ahmadabad only?

TP:  Bengalis, Maharashtrains’, Guajarati’s- they are the most travel happy people who spend a lot, so this is how we find more people coming from these regions. And they have a spending capacity, their family style, life style is like travelling and making merry. And the size of these states is more, so sizable number of people flows from these places.

KL: This is an election year. Do you think election will affect the inflow of tourists in valley?

TP:  It won’t affect anything.  There might be a dip in number of tourists visiting during election months but that will be compensated in later months.

Last year we had two dips in the tourist season but at the end of the year when we compared figures the dip was only 10 per cent.

KL: What are the major challenges for tourism in J&K?

TP: Challenge is to provide quality services, accommodation and free flow of traffic, hygiene, the type of food the visitor.

Such food streets should come up and private sector needs to be encouraged to invest in the infrastructure.

Already, we have carrying capacity overflow in Gulmarg, Pahalgam, Sonmarg, we want to decongest these places.

Another challenge is to bring back quality tourists who used visit long time back and spend a lot on handicrafts, carpets, artifacts. in Kashmir.  Now we have mostly budget tourists who love to bargain on everything. They are the ones who end up buying Amritsar made shawls instead of original Kashmiri product because of bargaining. We want our artisans to make money out of tourism. And this is the biggest challenge. We want to bring back the glory of  handicrafts sector through tourism.

Another major issue is the expansion of tourism products. We should have agro, herbal, silviculture, pisciculture tourism and high altitude trekking routes, jeep jeep safaris, ballooning, aero drives and mud biking. These are the sports we must add. Hopefully, we will come up with new dimensions and avenues for people.

KL: Do you have enough space available to accommodate the influx of tourists?

TP: Definitely we have enough space available. We have added new destinations which can help to decongest and disperse the flow of tourists to places like Yusmarg, Dodpathri or Lolab, Bangus. We can go up to Uri, Lolab, Gurez, Ladakh and Kargil. We have huge expanse of space available to accommodate tourists.

I can say if 22 crores pilgrims go to Andhra Pardesh, let 22 crore holiday making people come to Kashmir, still we will be having space.

KL: How many hotels are still under the occupation of government forces in valley?

TP: The data will be available with the district authorities, I don’t know but I believe only 30 to 40 hotels are still under the occupation. It used to be 150 earlier but now many of the hotels have been vacated. This year I am hopeful that they will be vacated and we will be having more space.

KL: Various hotel and guesthouse owners claim that the department of tourism does not permit them to renovate their old structure, why?

TP: Everything has to be renovated as per the master plan requirements. If somebody has already violated the master plan, which is not permissible, then how can they expect that they will be allowed? If they construct a commercial unit in a place, which is permissible for such activity, nobody is going to stop them.

KL: Night flights are not allowed in valley. Don’t you feel that could increase the number of tourists coming in valley?

TP: It hinders tourist flow to a great extent. We have been taking up this issue with the defence ministry as our airports are defence airports, we don’t have civil airports here.

KL: How many foreign tourists visit Kashmir?

TP: Only 48, 000 foreign tourists visit Kashmir. The number is very less. It used to be between 60 and 70 thousand during 80s, it should have been in lakhs now. But things will improve hopefully as we are doing street shows in different countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Lately, we have focused on oil rich Gulf nations who are big spenders and travel a lot for leisure. Even Turkey and Jordan is on our list.  We are focusing on those countries who have not issued any advisory against visiting Kashmir or India. During winters we get tourists from Australia and New Zealand.

Street shows help us in interacting with people across the globe. Such activities help in assuring tour operators that Kashmir is a safe place to visit.  During street shows many people ask us if Kashmir is safe.

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