M Saleem Beg
The tourism industry has been speaking to itself, most of the time scratching their own back and now they have to listen to others. The civil society and other stake holders want to be heard, they feel they have an opinion, a concern, which has not received due consideration. I would, as somebody who has been on the both sides of the divide, welcome expanding the discourse on this crucial sector.
We have reached a stage when Kashmir needs to revisit its tourism strategy and do it sooner than later. We have been in the business of developing the industry for the last 150 years. Ladakh has joined in 35 years back, mostly replicating, of course with more caution and imagination, what was laid out by Kashmir players, that is; chase numbers, promote mass tourism, build accommodation at the resorts so that the visitor feels at home. In the process we have ended up creating a negative impact on natural heritage, landscape, ecology, and skyline and in the long run on the livelihood sustainability.
There was a broad agreement between the private sector, the lead investors of hospitality infrastructure and the governmental agencies that more and more visitors would lead to economic growth. In this journey and the race for improving numbers we lost sight of the fact that in any industry including tourism, quality and sustenance matters more than numbers. Our returns per visitor have drastically gone down. Returns to the visitor in terms of experiencing tranquility and bounty of nature has taken a beating. The industry has spread with minimal returns to the local communities. In many areas the industry has grown to the exclusion of the host communities. That is why I have for a long time been pleading for revisiting the whole policy and the direction of investments.
Kashmir and Ladakh as also other parts of the state are very fragile eco systems. Human presence and human intervention has a cost – an environmental, sustainability cost for the very destination. We have produced a nightmare for local population and tourists alike during what we call tourist season. Ladakhis curse the growing tourist arrivals when they walk on the chocked and polluted Leh streets in the evenings. Earlier they would enjoy a stroll during summer days. Tourist areas of Srinagar face traffic jams for hours together bringing misery and hardship to commuters and residents. In spite of all laws, rules and restrictions, the Kashmir destinations are progressively loosing forest cover. Polluted waters of glacial rivers are a result of chasing the numbers. Old timers will tell you how they have lost the traditional affluent holiday maker.
The crowding of known popular destinations is forcing the state to look for newer and lesser known areas. It is high time we strategize the initiatives only after taking into account the past experiences and new realities. There is a need to factor in environmental and ecological costs – a responsibility towards our ecological security. Right now Bangus area is being looked upon as a possible new destination. Let us make it a pilot project. I suggest we declare Bangus a biosphere. It is spread over 300 Sq km. The core area is spread over 175 Sq Km. This should be a nature preserve. It is a treasure house of our biological diversity, its flora and fauna needs to be protected. The remaining area can be declared as a buffer, something allowed by the biosphere guidelines for community participation. Let us make the people living in the buffer as the stake holders. This concept needs a separate session. Here one can only flag this concept for other areas as well. Dodpathri, area beyond Yusmarg and other such parts of Kashmir and Ladakh should be looked now as nature tourism products, candidates for responsible tourism meant for nature and culture tourists as also a place of tranquility and peace for the local population and visitors alike. Nature conservation must be a planning tool, it is no longer an option. It is a necessity.
We need to include cities into new sustainable tourism policy. Srinagar and Leh are becoming transit points. Historic Srinagar was for a long time a major tourist attraction. It has lost both charm and appeal. We need to adopt area based approach in our tourism policy. Develop the area so that visitor gets an enhanced experience and the local residents get fruits and comfort of improved infrastructure.
Let us learn and draw from our past experience, bring in the policy fold the concerns of citizens who want to live a quality life for themselves and at the same time leave behind a clean and secure environment for future generations.
(The writer is a former director general tourism of state and heads the local chapter of INTACH)