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

Monday, February 16, 2009

Srinagar as an International Gateway

Ashraf wonders if the State is ready or even capable of capitalizing on the new tourist bonanza

(Mr. Mohammad Ashraf, 66, 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.)

Dubai Take Off!

Finally, almost after 4 years the Dubai Flight is now taking off. It marks the beginning of a new era for both Tourism and trade by giving two way international access to Kashmir.

By the time this article is published, the first ever direct international commercial flight from the upgraded Srinagar International Airport would have taken off for Dubai. Notwithstanding the controversy about the nomenclature of the Airport, it is now an International Airport. We seem always to be stuck in names and lose the substance. As Shakespeare said, “A rose is a rose by whatever name you call it!” Srinagar name, which is 2,000 years old, is in itself universal and globally known because of being the capital of Kashmir, probably the most talked about place on the Earth at the moment.

Take off by an International flight from Srinagar is a historical occasion. So far only chartered Hajj flights had been operating from this airport to Jeddah for last three years or so. The demand for starting international flights from Srinagar had been pending for last 35 years. It was in 1975 that the proposal for converting Srinagar Airport into an International Airport was mooted. It has taken decades for the proposal to finally materialize. While celebrating the occasion we must not forget that this is only the beginning and not an end in itself. This is more so because of a tradition in our part of the world of starting a new venture with a lot of fanfare and then after sometime forgetting it altogether. The venture then remains symbolic and fades away with time. The present start of the flight also smacks of a similar attitude.

Normally, one would have expected lot of groundwork both in Kashmir and Dubai before the formal inauguration of the flight. It is reported that just a couple of days before the flight only 40 seats have been booked. It seems to be more a political gesture than a real commercial venture! Moreover, the service introduced, the Air India Express is the one which had been started for the use of the labour class with all economy configuration. People in authority need to realise that this flight is an opening to a vast field of trade, commerce, tourism, and above all an end to the centuries old isolation of Kashmir from the rest of the world. There may be some teething troubles in the beginning but with a positive and constructive attitude of the concerned authorities, these can be easily overcome.

Firstly, the flight is not going to any other part of the country but to a foreign land. The first mandatory requirement is the visa. It is these days possible to get online visas from a number of countries. Dubai also has online visa facilities, which can be obtained by travel agents in collaboration with local hotels in Dubai. It is not known what arrangements for grant of visitor visa have been made by the Airlines? Because of an introductory promotional return fare offer of around Rs.13, 500, it may be cheaper to fly to Dubai than to Mumbai, and Delhi. The most interesting proposition for new travelers from Kashmir would be an all inclusive week long package-tour to Dubai. This can be easily worked out by the Air India office in Dubai with local travel agents there, and then marketed in Kashmir by its own office or General Sales Agents which may have to be appointed among local travel agents in Srinagar. To make the trip attractive and popular among Kashmiris, it may be worthwhile to connect Dubai with Jeddah so that Umra is included in it. There could be packages for Umra only. There are a number of local travel agencies in Kashmir which are at present conducting Umra and even annual Hajj pilgrimage. These could easily make use of the flight by re-routing from the earlier routing of Srinagar-Delhi-Jeddah-Delhi-Srinagar to Srinagar-Dubai-Jeddah-Dubai-Srinagar route. In fact, even the foreign tour operators bringing groups to Kashmir from Europe and other places could try this routing for direct access to Kashmir. Entire Middle East has a large population of western expatriates working in different construction companies, institutions, government offices, oil companies, and so on.

According to an estimate there are about 20 million western expatriates working in the Middle Eastern Region from Egypt to Oman. All these people get their holidays in July-August, the hottest months there. This is the best season in Kashmir for foreigners but an off peak season for domestic tourists. Most of these foreigners instead of visiting their home countries, travel to different tourist destinations in South East Asia like Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore etc. Some even go to Kerala to see monsoon rains. Kashmir for them would be a short haul destination and much cheaper and easier to go than from their home countries. A large number of these foreigners are keen to visit the adventure packed land of Ladakh. At present they do it through direct flights from Delhi to Leh where three airlines operate daily flights especially in summer. There is only a single flight per week between Srinagar and Leh. In the past the Indian Airlines had been operating 3 to 4 flights per week. If the frequency of Srinagar-Leh flights is increased at least to three per week, it will be possible to connect the Dubai flight with these with a night stop over in Srinagar either way. This will not only increase traffic to Ladakh but will also give some boost to Kashmir Tourism. Apart from this there are extensive possibilities of promoting special interest tourism. This includes both the adventure travel like mountaineering, trekking, skiing, rafting, and soft recreational tourism like Golf, Angling etc. Dubai has a number of world class Golf courses and some prestigious tournaments such as the Desert Classic with prize money of 2 million dollars is held there every year. Tiger Woods, the world’s number one player, is always present in the said championship. Dubai itself has a number of top Golfing associations and in some the membership is more than 5,000.

Kashmir’s Royal Spring Course in Srinagar designed by the famous architect Robert Trent Jones Junior II is among the top ten in the world. The Course which cost more than 8 million dollars to build has been visited by many players from Dubai. There are two more courses being re-laid as per international standards. These are at Gulmarg and Pahalgam. Thus we have the possibility of attracting Golfers from Dubai for a week long Golfing holiday. They can spend two days each at the out stations and three days in Srinagar. Once the frequency of flights increases, people can fly in for a week-end of Golf. In addition, there are numerous possibilities of exporting cargo especially handicrafts, fruit, exotic vegetables, flowers, and trout fish.

As mentioned earlier, we have a tendency to forget everything after a grand inauguration. As such it is very important for the State Government to set up a multi-disciplinary Task Force preferably under the chairmanship of the State’s Chief Executive to work out details for utilizing this new opening in Kashmir to the optimum level. Some representatives of the private sector could also be included in such a high powered grouping. The Task Force will not only take measures for streamlining the operation of Dubai flight but would also be able to suggest operation of flights to other possible destinations in the Middle East, South East Asia and probably to Central Asia. They could also examine the feasibility of starting chartered flights to Srinagar from all these short haul markets.

Commencement of all these activities holds immense possibilities of employment in various sectors utilizing these flights. As stated by a fellow journalist in one of the stories on the subject, the Kashmir’s International Connection could be a better Confidence Building Measure than even the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad Bus! Let us hope this CBM evolves into a real opening for Kashmir in all possible ways and does not get frozen in time like the Muzaffarabad Bus? Past experience makes one apprehensive that the venture may end like that unless the Chief Executive takes personal interest in it!

Tourism Promotion

Proper marketing is the very essence of promoting any tourist destination. Many countries spend huge amounts on tourism marketing. It involves creating a brand and then reinforcing it with continuous projection through media. There are many other tools such as FAM Tours, Travel Marts, and so on. The first requirement is to identify the potential markets and then a strategy has to be designed to tap the particular markets. Malaysia has a budget of US $ 80 million for marketing. Even within the country, states like Kerala and Rajasthan exceed Rs.60 crores or so. A state like Jharkhand has a higher marketing budget than the most touristic state of the country J & K. Another important aspect is the availability of a professional agency with top class creative personnel and sufficient resources. In the past the Department had engaged the best agency in the country for tourism promotion. Apart from this there is need to activate state tourism offices in different metros. These offices were primarily set up as promotional offices but have become just like post offices and are undertaking no promotional activity. These have to be made fully functional by undertaking extensive promotion in their jurisdiction. These must be manned by dedicated and professional staff. Then they have to be provided a blue print for undertaking continuous promotion for which sufficient funds must be made available to them.

Another problem hurting tourism to the state are the adverse travel advisories issued by various foreign offices. For modification of these, the state tourism officers have to be in regular touch with the consular offices of these countries. All the advisories are based on the feed back from consular offices. These officers can be invited to various tourist destinations in the state to get a first hand feel of the situation. This can make an impact on the feed back to their respective countries. Another measure to neutralise the adverse travel advisories is to organise and widely publicise through foreign media events of national and international standing. These would include Golf tournaments, Polo Matches, Rafting Challenges, Car Rallies, and important conferences and seminars. A number of such events can even be telecast live. To make best use of these activities, it may be worthwhile to chalk out a year long plan for tourism promotion.

Motivating Private Sector

Tourism can be a useful economic activity only if private sector participation is ensured. Usually for all new activities especially opening of new destinations, the private sector is reluctant in the beginning. Same is the case in uncertain situations. After having suffered repeated set backs, the private players hesitate in making fresh investments. In most of the developed countries, the state has a very limited role in tourism development mostly pertaining to regulation of the trade. The entire infrastructure is set up and operated by the private sector. In our case, even though we may have to initiate setting up of infrastructure in new areas, the effort should be to motivate the private sector to ultimately take over. In already developed and fully functional resorts, the field should be totally left open to private players only. It may also be worthwhile to examine the possibility of extending some sort of counter guarantee or insurance for private sector for all investments in tourism industry.

Here, it may be mentioned that almost a decade back, the Tourism sector was given the status of an industry but all the relevant incentives available to other industries were not extended in full to this sector. This issue needs to be examined afresh so that there is no discrimination between tourism and other industries. There has been a demand for constituting a Tourist Board or Authority on the pattern of the British National Tourist Board and the British Tourist Authority. Such body to be effective would have to be a statutory authority which only the state legislature can create. The suggestion deserves examination in the light of the British set up through some expert agency dealing in the field.

World Class Infrastructure

There has been a long pending demand for setting up of world class infrastructure especially in the accommodation sector. Every body who speaks about going to Kashmir in foreign marts wants to know about 5-star hotels in Srinagar. It is true that almost all major capitals boast of the properties of various multi-national hotel chains. Such high category hotels are not needed in mountain resorts like Pahalgam, Gulmarg or Sonamarg. In these places it is better to have mountain lodges and at the most 2 to 3 star hotels. In most of the resorts in Alps, the maximum rating for a hotel is 4-star. There are no 5-star hotels in the high altitude resorts anywhere in Europe. With the Srinagar Airport getting upgraded to an international airport, there is a need to have some world class 5-star properties here in the capital city. This is essential to attract up market tourists used to such high profile living. Apart from accommodation, there is also need to up grade our tourist transport services. Sometime back the government had taken initiative for up grading the infrastructure but the approach to the subject was totally ad hoc which resulted in a backlash. There is no need to auction huge plots of land to outsiders for setting up of infrastructure. Most of the international hotel chains do not construct their own properties. In most cases they give their name on franchise basis and undertake management and marketing of properties. The same approach of joint ventures needs to be adopted in case of Kashmir. There are some examples of such ventures like the Grand Intercontinental in Srinagar, ITC Fortune Inn in Jammu, and the Carlson Country Inn in Katra. It should not be difficult for the local entrepreneurs to invite chains like the Le Meridian, the Holiday Inn, Sheraton, and so on for setting up some 5-star hotels in Srinagar. The government must motivate local hoteliers to go in for joint ventures with similar chains and these projects should be given incentives and concessions by the government in terms of tax rebate etc. The subject can be further expanded by involving consultants specialising in this field.

Human Resource Development

An important sphere of activity in the tourism sector is the human resource development. No doubt Kashmiris are famous from the earliest times for being very good hosts, yet the modern tourism set up needs highly trained manpower to handle various activities. Every person involved in this trade these days needs some training to handle his job. Hotels have special software developed for managing various services efficiently. In fact, there are now specialised courses for most of the staff coming into direct contact with the tourists. These are based on psychoanalysis. One of the courses is called TACT (Transactional Analysis for Customer Treatment). Many international airlines use these. In our case, most of the hotels, restaurants, and guest houses do not have fully trained staff like waiters, front office managers etc. It is possible to organise short term courses for most of the in service staff. This responsibility can be easily taken over by the Institute of Hotel Management in Srinagar which has already shifted to a sprawling new campus in Rajbagh. They have in fact increased their intake with the inauguration of the new campus. Normally they undertake long term diploma courses. However, it should not be difficult for them to undertake this short term training in tourist facilitation. The training can be funded by the Tourism Department as an incentive to the private sector who can be asked to give preference to the trained staff. Apart from the private sector, the tourism officials themselves need to be imparted some training as well as familiarisation with the destinations they are supposed to be marketing. In the past, the department had conducted some study tours of the officers and officials to various tourist destinations in J & K including Ladakh. This is more important for the staff posted in the outside state offices. Unless they are themselves familiar with various tourist attractions of the state how can one expect them to market these? Some familiarisation tours had also been conducted for the staff of Government of India Tourist Offices in foreign countries. This exercise can be repeated in collaboration with the Union Ministry of Tourism. It needs to be emphasised that the Human Resource Development is a continuous process which has to be kept going for planned development of tourism.

Regulation of Travel Trade

An important role for the state in the tourism industry is the regulation of the trade. In fact, in most of the developed countries this is the major role played by the state. There also national and international associations for various sectors in tourism which have their own code of ethics for membership. In case of any complaint the individual members can lose the membership and can even be black listed. The J & K state has one of the best legislations known as the J & K Registration of Tourist Trade Act 1978/82 which controls entire tourism activity in the whole of the state. For enforcing various provisions of the Act, the department has an enforcement wing headed by a regular police officer of the rank of a superintendant of police on deputation. The officer has a company of police called the Tourist Police to help him in enforcing the Act. The officers of the tourism department have magisterial powers under the Act. They can enforce the attendance of witnesses by issuing summons and warrants and have also compounding powers. A written complaint of a tourist is admissible as evidence even if the tourist has left the state. Touting and pestering of tourists is a cognizable offence. Unfortunately, the state police who are supposed to enforce this section of the Act either are unaware of it or prefer not to enforce it! For any destination the repeat tourism is very important.

However, one can expect repeat tourism only when the tourists are satisfied with the services and have an assurance that any complaints would be immediately attended to. It is here that regulatory authority in tourism has a very important role. Accountability of the service providers is very important for the reputation of a destination. This has to be ensured and its availability widely publicised. The services include not only boarding and lodging facilities but shopping also. The state has to pay adequate attention to this aspect.

The points outlined can be basis of some brain storming sessions for the travel trade and government representatives. It is essential to formulate a proper policy for tourism development before going in for massive promotion and marketing. It is hoped the concerned in the trade will take the initiative to revamp the Tourism Industry in the State.

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