Kashmir tourism: the problem of plenty
How about a 'Marshall Plan' Mr Jora and Mr Talat?
ARJIMAND HUSSAIN TALIB
Kashmir's tourism is in a state of crisis today. The crisis emanates from the problem of plenty. From a deserted land few years ago to the one swarmed by huge number of tourists, everything seems to be overwhelmed. Our fragile environment, abysmal infrastructure and limited human capacities seem to find coping difficult.
Parliamentarian Maneka Gandhi in her article for this newspaper this week said what many of us have been saying all along: our priorities in the tourism sector are misplaced. Two outcomes from this crisis, as what Ms. Gandhi has rightly hinted, are clear. One outcome is the phenomenal environmental degradation, urbanisation and loss of natural ambience in the valley. The other outcome is a lack of satisfaction and negative perception among the tourists who visit us these days. Both these outcomes may endanger the sustainability of Kashmir's tourism. So what can be done to reverse this?
The first thing that we need is a tourism policy with a clear cut action plan for its sustainability. That action plan would need to address three critical areas - environmental preservation, infrastructure development and internationally-accepted services standards. Both Tourism Minister Rigzin Jora and Tourism Director Talat Parvaiz are known to be intelligent and well aware of these needs.
For environmental preservation we would need to restructure Tourism Development Authorities (TDAs), and introduce a full-fledged Environmental Compliance Agency in the Tourism Department. The current structure of TDAs mainly addresses administration and engineering development. In addition to a chief executive officer, civil engineers and administrative staff, TDAs need technical experts for environmental protection, eco-aesthetics, landscape designing, agronomy, forest protection, community development, and the related fields.
In the absence of such a structure and environmental codes and standards, crude concretisation of natural streams and development of cement concrete footpaths near glaciers in Kashmir's prized tourist resorts is horrible. A construction boom which largely sans eco-aesthetics and environmental sensitivity is a serious problem too.
For institutionalising environmental compliance, J&K needs a tourism policy which makes environmental accounting a part and parcel of tourism planning. Such an approach could, for instance, require environmental adherence certification for all tourism-related actors - TDAs, hotels, transport companies, restaurants, etc. That must also include pilgrim tourism and eco-tourism entities. The environmental certification must include an annual or two-year report based on environmental accounting. A standard format developed by the Tourism Department could take care of that.
To address infrastructure inadequacy, J&K government should negotiate a kind of 'Marshall Plan' with the government of India. The kind of money our tourism sector gets is peanuts. A tourism 'Marshall Plan' would require something around Rs 5000 crore. Kashmir tourism brings in a lot of revenue to the state and central governments. We also need to keep in mind that most of our tourism infrastructure has to cater to the needs of a large floating population of security forces and outside workers too. A 'Marshall Plan' should include a four to six lane ring road running through the foothills of the entire valley, providing easy access to its tourist destinations.
Third, in the absence of internationally-accepted services standards, our tourism is degenerating into a highly low end and low quality economic activity. The reason a large number of tourists these days go back home disappointed is because of our degenerating services.
Services standards should not only be for hotels, they are needed for all the services - ranging from transportation, catering and other small services like boating, horse riding and so on. Such standards are required for even TDAs. Introduction of services standards would promote a culture of healthy competition for service excellence across the board. For example, good services and environmental preservation based on already established indicators could bag a TDA a 5-star rating while a non performer could get a 2 or 3-star. Same rating could be applied to other services as well.
For greater accountability, some of the unorganised services in the private sector like transportation, tour guidance, trekking, horse riding and other adventure activities need to be organised into collaborative entities or societies for adherence to the set standards. Without that enforcement of standards and necessary training will be impossible. Such an approach could also help in improving hygiene standards.
Having travelled across more than 25 countries, including some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, my impression is that even the poorest and under-developed countries have such basic standards today, and are doing much better than us. We must catch up before it is too late for us.
The columnist is a technical consultant in international development, covering Asia-Pacific and Africa regions
Lastupdate on : Sat, 21 Jul 2012 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Sat, 21 Jul 2012 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sun, 22 Jul 2012 00:00:00 IST
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