Strengthening Tourism in Kashmir

Strengthening Tourism in Kashmir
File Photo: Aman Farooq/GK

Even as the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic played havoc with human lives, resulting in an unprecedented global health emergency, it equally caused massive destruction to social and economic sectors. Amid the virus-induced economic lockdowns, millions were rendered jobless and millions saw drastic drop in incomes.

Among other sectors, it’s the travel and tourism sector which was the most affected segment with aircrafts grounded, hotels closed and strict travel restrictions put in place around the world.

In the backdrop of the massive impact on the sector, the World Tourism Day 2021 assumed extraordinary significance as there is urgent need to strategize the things to get the tourism sector back on track.

United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) labeled the World Tourism Day 2021 as a day to focus on Tourism for Inclusive Growth. “This is an opportunity to look beyond tourism statistics and acknowledge that, behind every number, there is a person,” stated the background note of the UNWTO, which has desired to celebrate tourism’s unique ability to ensure that nobody is left behind as the world begins to open up again and look to the future.

In its background note released on the occasion, the organization states that the pandemic, which is yet to end, pushed an additional 32 million people into extreme poverty in 2020. In least-developed countries especially, women have been hit hardest by the global crisis caused by the pandemic. One reason for this, as put down by the UNWTO, is that they mainly work in the sectors most-affected by the pandemic – including tourism.

Remarkably, World Tourism Day is celebrated each year on 27 September, fostering awareness of tourism’s social, cultural, political and economic value and the contribution that the sector can make towards reaching the Sustainable Development Goals.

In the context of tourism, Jammu & Kashmir assumes huge significance as the sector is stated to be the backbone of the region’s economy. But, the sector in pre-pandemic times has always struggled to grow to its full potential owing to various factors. In other words, tourism sector has remained unorganised despite the fact several measures were taken in the past to reset it and scale up its contribution to the region’s economy. The sector continues to remain loaded with plenty of problems. Of course, there are solutions in place to remove the bottlenecks hampering the growth of the sector. But what is needed to reset the sector is an organized approach to address to the problems. Immediately we should track down the problems on region basis – Kashmir & Jammu. Then region specific solutions should be tailored and implemented.

For example, we have a composite tourist traffic comprising pilgrims, sightseers and the visitors coming for business, conferences and other activities. So our tourist traffic is broadly categorized into pilgrims who visit Mata Vaishnodevi temple and Amarnath Cave; and foreign and domestic tourist, who come for sight seeing, pleasure trips, trekking, winter sport business etc.

Take the case of Jammu region, where pilgrim tourism is the mainstay of this sector. This pilgrim tourism to the Jammu region has remained unaffected during the years of turmoil. The volume of pilgrims, which is in millions per year, speaks about the healthy economic activity it would have generated in the region. In the case of Kashmir, turmoil prevented tourist traffic and caused infrastructural gaps. So, Kashmir valley needs a special focus when it comes to organizing tourism promotion campaigns.

However, in Jammu there is need to upgrade the existing infrastructure. Pilgrimage is an important activity in man's life. People in large number visit the important religious places. Owing to heavy rush of pilgrims, there is a scope for additional hotels which can provide reasonable comforts to cater to the requirement of upper / upper-middle / middle class tourists and other visitors.

One important point, among other things, is that heritage tourism needs to be harnessed for preserving the region’s vast, rich and varied legacies. We have a drawback in the sense that the state has negligible entertainment to offer to the tourists. Our rich cultural heritage can be exploited along with modern facilities like music festivals, shopping, sports events etc.

We also need to encash on the growing popularity of the concept of village-life tourism, which is also known as community tourism. Tourists have shown keen interest in having first-hand experience of village life. This kind of tourism is a big success in some parts of India, particularly in the north-eastern states, where people have improved infrastructure in villages to attract tourists worldwide. Why can’t we explore community tourism concept? Identified villages should be developed on modern lines without altering their natural ambience.

Similarly, planning tourism promotion in old city demands a specialised intervention. Exploring religious and heritage angle of the city to attract tourists sounds musical to the ears. But before that a significant portion of the city's population which runs the cultural industry of the state needs to be economically activated to add colour to the tourism activities.

Tourism is of course backbone of the state’s economy, but it's the cultural industry (handicrafts sector) which is the spinal cord of this backbone. Arts and crafts, especially produced in the Shaher-i-Khaas, are our prized possession for centuries and form our cultural industry.

Why not to explore the possibility of having a ‘Golden Hands’ festival annually in which our craftsmen can display their products and skill. While the craftsmen can display their work, they can simultaneously practice their arts and allow visitors to see how the goods are produced as well as the final products. Precisely, these festivals can be promoted to attract tourists who have been showing tremendous appetite for Kashmiri arts and crafts. So it makes a sense to have artisan community at the centre stage of any tourism promotion activity in the Shaher-i-Khas.

In the context of tourism promotion, discovery of the fossil wealth of Triassic period in the vicinity of the Srinagar city by a local geo-scientist of international repute, G. M. Bhat, merits a special mention. Basically, this local geo-scientist has been aspiring for establishment of a fossil park in Kashmir. He has independently been traveling to appropriate places outside the country to woo international support for establishing the first ever fossil park in the state of Jammu & Kashmir. He had even succeeded in motivating international community to travel to Kashmir and seek their expertise and other support to develop the fossil park. But, the irony is that the local authorities lack interest to accomplish the project.

Notably, in 2016, the government was told about the discovery of Triassic fossils at Guryul Ravines, Khonmoh-Vihi, 13 kilometers from Srinagar. A statement was made that time about the establishment of an International Kashmir Triassic Fossil Park soon. But it didn't happen.

Ours is a region with diverse physical attributes, rich cultural heritage and eventful 5000 years of recorded history. Tourism plays a major role in showcasing such great treasure of rich past to the rest of the world. The authorities need to capitalize on the opportunity of the fossil treasure and establish a fossil park. An international Kashmir Triassic Park would attract global attention. Not only geo-scientists, it would pull crowds across globe. Such a project would become one of the most cherished places of learning for students, scholars and scientist all over the world.

I don't think finances will be a hurdle. There will be global financers who would love to invest money in a fossil park like this, which describes life on earth existing 250 millions years ago. What’s needed is the strong will of the authorities to realize the dream of having an international Kashmir Fossil Park.

Meanwhile, However, for all tourism related developmental activities we have to take into account the shaky confidence of potential tourists so that a sense of safety vis-à-vis Kashmir is infused in them. Besides, any tourism activity has to be particularly sensitive to environmental concerns because of the fragile nature of its ecology. Needless to mention, emphasis should also be equally laid on the connectivity – road as well as air connectivity.

(The views are of the author & not the institution he works for)

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