(Mr. Mohammad Ashraf, 68, 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 Française 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.)
Kashmir’s Tourism Mania
One of the most common fallacies used by one and all in Kashmir is that the Tourism is the back bone of Kashmir’s economy. There are no two opinions that Kashmir is one of the best year round tourism destinations. The potential for the development of all types of tourism activities is immense. However, at the present moment it is merely an additional income generating resource and gives temporary seasonal employment to people in tourist areas. It does not constitute even 10% of the state GDP. One has to remember that the very basic essential criterion for development of any leisure activity is peace. Once peace prevails in Kashmir, tourism could be the most important sector of the economy provided other inputs to develop the industry are also freely available. There are three main criteria for development of tourism to a particular area. Potential, accessibility, and infrastructure. Firstly, an area has to have the requisite potential such as environment, heritage, pilgrimage, and so on. Next, the area has to be accessible both physically and politically. Finally, it has to possess requisite infrastructure to be promoted as a tourist destination.
The potential of Kashmir for development of all varieties of tourism, such as leisure tourism, adventure tourism, heritage tourism and even the health tourism are unmatched. Every part of the valley is a potential tourist destination. However, the catch is the accessibility. Both the physical and the political accessibility. Some of our best potential tourist areas are politically inaccessible being near the line of control. These include Bangus, parts of Lolab, Gurez, Tulail and so on. Physical accessibility of the valley itself is limited to a single exit and entry point through the national highway. All other routes which were used for trade and tourism before 1947 are closed. The easiest traditional route of Jhelum Valley Road too is closed for tourism even though it has been partially opened for travel of blood relations and barter trade. These days one cannot think of real tourism without an international air connection. We do have an international airport but without any international flights! Finally, comes the question of infrastructure. We are terribly lacking in international standard infrastructure in accommodation, food, and transport. We have enough facilities available for budgeted and middle level tourists but are absolutely low on high end tourism. In spite of being in the tourism business for over half a century, we are now framing a tourism policy and a vision document with a 15 year perspective plan!
Tourism is a double mixed blessing. It can bring prosperity to an area but can at the same time destroy it by irretrievably damaging the environment. Tourism and environment are everywhere in conflict unless one is careful to go for sustainable tourism only. Many tourist destinations in the world have faced damage to the environment because of the excessive tourist arrivals. One has to assess the carrying capacity of a potential area and then take measures to restrict the arrivals to ensure preservation of the main attraction which in our case is the environment. After having failed to control the mushroom growth in existing resorts which are getting virtually urbanised, we are destroying new potential areas by following the same procedure. It is time for the Government to get out of the commercial side of tourism and act strictly as a promoter and a regulator of the industry. Somehow, the vested interests have created an impression that the tourism is a queen with a magical wand wherever she goes the area gets economic boost. It may be temporarily true but in the long run the area gets tremendous environmental damage. We end up killing the golden goose! One of the prime examples is the Amarnath Pilgrimage. The uncontrolled rush has caused tremendous damage to the fragile ecology of the area both from Pahalgam and Sonamarg side. If one can limit the numbers to Rishikesh, why not to Amarnath? Again politics comes in. The pilgrimage is espoused as the ancient Kashmir’s religious link to India!
Apart from the vested interests bent upon destroying our ecology for some easy quick bucks, the tourism refrain has political connotations. It suits politicians both in the state and the centre to use tourism as a barometer of political normalcy. Both claim Kashmir is normal because hundreds of thousands of tourists are flocking to it. Tourism is not the real indicator of the ground situation especially the extreme alienation of the people which bursts out from time to time. This all round out of proportion espousal of Tourism to the level of a mania is also responsible for neglecting other important sectors of the economy. In fact, even in tourism the amount of noise made is not in proportion to the attention actually given to its planned development. One is not against tourism development. The state department of tourism has been taking many major initiatives to develop adventure and heritage tourism. Again they are handicapped by non-availability of funds where actually needed. In fact, more focused attention needs to be paid to certain critical aspects such as physical accessibility and infrastructure. Political accessibility will have to wait the return of peace.
While espousing the cause of tourism, it must be remembered that certain critical areas need urgent attention not only because these are tourist attractions but because these represent the very life of the valley. For instance Dal Lake is to be saved not only because it is a tourist destination but because it is the very heart of Kashmir. If Dal stops living, the whole Kashmir is dead! Similarly, we need to protect our heritage and our history not for tourists but for our own future generations. It is a pity that the departments meant to protect our heritage and preserve our culture are in a mess and the tourism department has to step in to save the both! It is time to give up the obsessive attachment to the word tourism for mostly political lip service and take practical steps to give due and focused attention not only to this industry but all other sectors like agriculture, horticulture, floriculture, and fisheries. If we desire a sustainable economy then we have to rise above the political gimmickry and be realistic and practical in our approach. Mere slogans for media coverage will not do!