(Mr. Mohammad Ashraf, 69, 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.)
The Khyber Initiative
It has been repeatedly pointed out that the most important criterion for tourism to have impact on the local economy is to attract the high spending tourists rather than millions of budget tourists. The main handicaps in attracting this type of tourism are the absence of international air connectivity and the lack of world class infrastructure suitable for that class of tourists. We are unable to do anything about air connectivity as it remains under the purview of the central government. They have their own scales to judge its advantages and disadvantages especially from the security angle. It had been given out that the sole weekly flight started to Dubai was not economically viable as Pakistan has refused to give permission to overfly its territory for flights going to or originating from Srinagar. Recently a delegation of some leaders has gone to Pakistan to plead for inclusion of Kashmiris as the third party in the Indo-Pak negotiations on the subject of Kashmir. That may seem a tall order keeping in view the Indian stand on the issue. However, these people could plead for granting at least the minor concessions of over flight and even the permission for Wullar Barrage to improve power generation for Kashmiris during winter. One hopes that these people do think of the day to day mundane matters apart from the ultimate goal of “AZADI”!
The other alternative to improve air connectivity is to promote charters which could come via Delhi after completing immigration formalities. It is not a difficult proposition as we already had such flights from Singapore via Delhi operated by Air India. This should not be difficult for the mainstream leaders to achieve if they really mean to do a good turn to Kashmir’s economy especially the tourism sector! The least they can do is to emphasise the necessity of such a connection before the Civil Aviation Minister and if need be, before the Prime Minister. Nobody is going to take away Kashmir if it has international air connections. In fact, it will help people throughout the world to see for themselves that the situation is conducive for development of high end international tourism.
Regarding the other handicap of world class infrastructure, the Khyber Resort developers have shown the way. The main bottle neck in inviting the global players in star category accommodation has been the ownership of land. The government had earlier made many attempts but all those boomeranged because of the land problem. The one attempt during the PDP rule to sell 50 plots in Gulmarg for setting up of hotels misfired and the government had to eat a humble pie. In fact, during the same period, the grandson of Henry Ford had approached the state government for collaboration in setting up of a world class ski resort but he was totally cold shouldered. As a result he went to Himachal where he was welcomed with open arms. There has also been a misplaced apprehension among the local hoteliers that if the five star chains come to Kashmir, they will lose their business. The people using those facilities are of a different kind and will not come here unless they have a choice of their own. The best alternative will always be setting up of infrastructure with local partnership or even with totally independent local initiative. The Khyber Resort development has shown that the top class accommodation can be set up in all the resorts of Kashmir provided there is local initiative by young and dedicated entrepreneurs.
One thing to be remembered in setting up such projects is to ensure expertise in management and maintenance. It has been observed that many local entrepreneurs spend crores in setting up properties but when it comes to management and maintenance, they are very reluctant to spend couple of lakhs or so. Such a state of affairs is common in the public sector where to quote an example the government spent over 50 crores in creating a world class golf course but hesitated in spending few lakhs to engage an international level golf superintendent! They may have had some political compulsions! However, the private sector should have no such compulsions. On the question of management, one is reminded of the Highland Park Hotel of Gulmarg. The late Benjie Nedou used to personally supervise everything in the hotel and for a long time it was the best address in the resort. May be it was due to his training in the army as he was a colonel in the Guards? One hopes that the Khyber Resort management will not only follow Benjie’s tradition but take it to perfection if they have to keep it as the best address in the resort!