Introduction to KashmirForum.org Blog

I launched the website and the Blog after having spoken to government officials, political analysts and security experts specializing in South Asian affairs from three continents. The feedback was uniformly consistent. The bottom line is that when Kashmiris are suffering and the world has its own set of priorities, we need to find ways to help each other. We must be realistic, go beyond polemics and demagoguery, and propose innovative ideas that will bring peace, justice and prosperity in all of Jammu and Kashmir.

The author had two reasons to create this blog. First, it was to address the question that was being asked repeatedly, especially, by journalists and other observers in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, inquiring whether the Kashmiri society was concerned about social, cultural and environmental challenges in the valley given that only political upheaval and violence were reported or highlighted by media.

Second, the author has covered the entire spectrum of societal issues and challenges facing Kashmiri people over an 8-year period with the exception of politics given that politics gets all the exposure at the expense of REAL CHALLENGES that will likely result in irreversible degradation in the quality of life and the standard of living for future generations of Kashmiris to come.

The author stopped adding additional material to the Blog once it was felt that most, if not all, concerns, challenges and issues facing the Kashmiri society are cataloged in the Blog. There are over 1900 entries in the Blog and most commentaries include short biographical sketches of authors to bring readers close to the essence of Kashmir. Unfortunately, the 8-year assessment also indicates that neither Kashmiri civil society, nor intellectuals or political leadership have any inclination or enthusiasm in pursuing issues that do not coincide with their vested political agendas. What it means for the future of Kashmiri children and their children is unfathomable. But the evidence is all laid out.

This Blog is a reality check on Kashmir. It is a historical record of how Kashmir lost its way.

Vijay Sazawal, Ph.D.
www.kashmirforum.org

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sustaining Tourism in the Age of Terrorism

A professional expert addresses the issue

(Mr. Mohammad Ashraf, 65, was born and raised in Srinagar. He attended the S.P. High School and the S.P College before joining the Regional Engineering College at Naseem Bagh in Civil Engineering. However, he changed his career to adventure sports like mountaineering and skiing, completing his training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling and Gulmarg. He also completed a diploma in French language from the Alliance Fran├žaise in New Delhi. He joined the J&K Tourism Department in 1973, rose to become its Director-General in 1996, and retired in 2003 after 30 years of service. He has been associated with the Adventure Sports at the national level and was recently re-elected as the Vice-President of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, the apex body of adventure sports in India, for two years. To commend his efforts in introducing rescue measures in Kashmir Mountains, he was awarded “Merite-Alpin” by Swiss in a special function in Les Diablerets in 1993. He continues to be a member of the Governing Council of IMF and is also the President of Jammu & Kashmir Mountaineering & Hiking Club.)

Terror hits Tourism

The first casualty of any terrorist incident anywhere in the world is the Tourism to the affected spot and sometimes to the entire region in general. Kashmir’s Travel Trade has now become habitually used to these ups and downs of Tourism. Credit must be given to the players of Tourism in Kashmir for their persistence in promoting Tourism against the most difficult and challenging conditions. It is truly a story in persistence! The current year saw a dramatic rise and then a sharp fall in tourist arrivals to Kashmir. In May and June it was virtually impossible to get a room but then in July, there was a drastic fall due to the Amarnath Land Controversy. The recent events in Mumbai have hit the arrivals to entire India at the very start of the season. It is rather sad that after reaching the five million mark there has been downslide. Tourism constitutes 6% of the GDP in India. There is already 30% fall in arrivals. The Foreign Offices of various western countries do not even wait for the details of incidents before issuing adverse travel advisories. There seems to be a typical bias in regard to destinations in the East. There have been worse incidents in different parts of Europe including U.K. and Spain but one has never come across an advisory totally stopping travel to these places. No doubt the consumer legislation is very strong in western countries and all travel agents and tour operators are wary of taking groups unless these are fully insured. Unfortunately, no insurance company comes forward for insuring travellers once the concerned Foreign Office issues an adverse travel advisory.

These days bulk of the tourist traffic moves in organised groups and there are very few FITs (Free Independent Travellers). Group traffic has to be insured both for the provision of amenities and against illness and other problems. No one comes forward to insure against terrorist incidents and even if some companies do it, the premiums are prohibitive. There is only one kind of traveller who gets all insurance cover and even for emergency evacuation and treatment and that is an adventure tourism traveller. It has been observed that the people going out for adventure activities such as mountaineering, white-water rafting, ski-mountaineering and so on are not usually put off by uncertain situations. They are used to facing all sorts of hazards and are moreover much more acquainted with the geography of a particular area. For these people the geographical maps are the primary requirement and as such they exactly know the problematic areas and can avoid these. On the other hand an ordinary traveller is not so much aware about the detailed location of the area and any news about problems in some spot easily puts him off. In such circumstances, it may be preferable to promote adventure travel. We have the living example of Ladakh where the tourist traffic has continued in spite of unusual conditions in neighbouring valley of Kashmir. The main reason is the fact of Ladakh being primarily an adventure destination.

During the current year Ladakh has received over 60,000 tourists including over 30,000 foreigners. Out of these more than 10,000 have gone to Leh by road through the Kashmir valley. This is an achievement for the State Tourism Department. Another factor in putting off potential travellers is the unbridled Media coverage of untoward incidents especially by the electronic media which is now used to blowing out things beyond reasonable proportions. The “Breaking News” and the “Live” coverage of such incidents go beyond reasonable limits. The incidents are played up not only for days on but sometimes for weeks at a stretch. The greatest damage to tourism destinations in India especially to Kashmir has been done by the Media gone totally berserk. This is totally in contrast to Media in western countries. The carnage of 9/11 which was telecast live was watched by millions all over the world. The second plane hitting the World Trade Centre and the crumbling of the towers was watched live by almost everyone glued to his TV set at that particular moment all over the world. However, none of the channels, newspapers, or magazines carried any photographs of dead bodies or remains of the victims. The Media had tacitly agreed to avoid these to prevent panic among would be travellers. Had such an event occurred in India somewhere, not only gruesome pictures of bodies would have been splashed all over but the process would have continued for weeks on end.

There is only one way of avoiding this intentional or unintentional damage to the travel business and that is an interaction between the Media and the Captains of Travel Industry. So far there has never been any such interaction at the national level. The representatives of Travel Industry need to sit together with the Editors of National Newspapers and their equivalents in the electronic media. Kashmir Tourism could host such a conference at the national level. There is need to set up a core group of these representatives for disaster management. Sometime back the Union Ministry of Tourism had set up a disaster management cell to take care of such incidents. Both to look after tourists getting into trouble and to give out the correct picture in case of untoward incidents so that the repercussions do not adversely affect the industry all over the country in one go. It is not known whether the cell actually took off and what has been its role during various incidents in last couple of years? At the present moment there is no such core group of the Tourism Industry and the Media in our State. There is utmost urgency to set up the disaster core group in the State Tourism Department at the earliest. The most ideal way of lessening the damage is to organise events of national and international level in different tourist resorts and ensure the projection of same through the print and electronic media.

The next best thing is to have continuous FAM Tours (Familiarisation Tours) of Travel Media, Travel Agents, and the office bearers of various national and international Travel Associations. We have to be pro-active and not reactive. Whether there is an incident or not, the FAM Tours must continue on a continuous basis. Egypt has faced a number of violent incidents involving the British tourists but before the British Foreign Office could issue an adverse advisory, the Egyptian Interior Minister was in London convincing them about the security measures initiated for the safety of the tourists. If we are really prepared with facts and figures, we can get the advisories modified or even totally lifted. In case of the western bias referred to above, we can at least cause a lot of embarrassment to these people for issuing unrealistic advisories by confronting them with the facts on the ground. One more important measure which the government needs to take to reassure the players in the Tourism Industry is to institute some kind of a counter guarantee for investments in tourism sector.

There has been a trend for the people in the industry to close their establishments after repeated incidents of violence drastically reduce the flow of tourists to potential destinations. Similar actions for relief are initiated by the government in case of natural calamities such as floods, drought, earthquake etc. For Tourism Sector violent incidents are virtually an equivalent of the natural calamities. A force majeure beyond their control. They need something like a crop insurance to retain confidence in the ultimate success of the industry in these adverse conditions. Finally, the Tourism Industry Players themselves have also to give confidence not only to the travellers but to the large number of entrepreneurs involved in this business. To achieve this they need to pool their resources and work in unison. This can only be done if they sincerely believe and courageously continue with their “Story in Persistence” in spite of the adverse conditions! The Government must also realise that the members of Tourism Fraternity are fighting terrorism in their own way and they need to be fully supported.

No comments: