Tourism is the backbone of Kashmir’s economy. Has government been able to cash on the tourism potential of the Valley?
Muzaffar Andrabi has travelled to over 60 countries and yearns to use his vast experience in tourism sector to promote scenic beauty and rich culture of his homeland for attracting tourists. He has spent years in the most rugged and remote areas in Trans-Siberia or Trans-Himalayas and is amongst the popular tour directors who led groups through Silk Route all the way to Kashgar. He was stationed in South Africa— chasing the beautiful Cheetahs and travelled the corners of Madagascar with wild life enthusiasts counting 3000 different kinds of butterflies and Lemurs.
He is among the few professionals who has led deluxe American tours through continents. An expert in designing new programmes, discovering new places Andrabi has chased the beautiful Cherry blossoms through Japan, sailed through the historical rivers of Egypt and China and seen inside out some of the incredible sites of the world— Pyramids of Giza, Warriors of Xi’an, legendary site of Ephesus, beautiful Persepolis of Iran, The Greek Acropolis, famous rock cut architecture of Petra, great temples of Angkor Wat, Colonial Architecture of Burma, the fascinating masjid of Isfahan or the beautiful Registan square of Samarkand.
With vast international experience in tourism, Muzaffar Andrabi shares his views on various aspects of the sector with Greater Kashmir senior editor Arif Shafi Wani
Tourism is the backbone of Kashmir’s economy. Has government been able to cash on the tourism potential of the Valley?
Every government can achieve and cash on the potential provided they take advice from professionals. Like it is important to consult an Architect when you plan to make a good house, similarly to excel in Tourism one has to consult a professional. The government should seriously consider bringing in fresh talented people in tourism sector to the forefront rather than giving extensions to the retired people.
We must create an environment free of corruption to attract our youth to return back to the state. We all know we are losing them at a pace where retrieving them will be tough. Government should plan to create world class infrastructure which will subsequently create opportunities to attract them to return. How many well educated families have their kids here in Kashmir working? No one has paid attention to this serious problem. Our young generation is losing interest in staying back perhaps because we lack something. And if we do not act now, our cultural identity will vanish into the thin air and will be only be remembered through books. Travelers are now looking for rich cultural experiences and we need to protect that.
Are you questioning intentions of Government?
Intentions of every government may be right and honest. Intentions alone cannot take you further. It is like day dreaming. You need to act and create infrastructure. Has Government created any world class infrastructure or facility so far in Kashmir? Anything, we are today proud of is contribution of private players at least in Tourism Industry. And because of them this industry has survived. Every government department that is associated with Tourism is running on loss. Has anyone thought why? And we can rectify it, so why not do it now.
Do you think it is must for a tourist destination to have a museum?
A tourist destination requires a Museum to showcase its art, craft, history and culture. The one we have does not even qualify to be a museum, and to top it all is going from bad to worst. We have the best crafts, amazing history and a fascinating culture, and unfortunately it is never shown. I see some of our best shawls are lying in Craft Museum, Delhi. Go to Paris or London and see how they showcase our products. At least from the Craft Museum Delhi, we need to get them back. They are marvels of art. Has any government thought importance of a museum for our industry in the long run? Kashmir at least should have 3-4 museums up and running by now and so does Ladakh need an elaborate one.
Best examples we can follow is China where each city has a museum which are laced with most modern gadgets like the ones in Metropolitan Museum in New York. We have made a new building which by every standard is simply a building. And look at a place they have chosen for the museum which is off the tourist circuit. It is again an operational hazard because no professional was consulted when the idea was initiated, may be an engineer who has ruined it as he has gone off the architectural road map. This should have been a classical heritage architectural building which should have been written up right away in the travel books like a must see in Kashmir is their museum. Because, we have not taken professional advice, we have picked up a wrong place and the structure is in no way our heritage.
What type of Museum should Kashmir have?
If I have to make a museum, I would make small typical heritage buildings which would represent each aspect separately. Why separately, because operationally it will be less crowded at a time and more affective for those who come to visit. It would have elaborate displays and presentation keeping the flux and growing trend of tourism in mind. We have some best curators in the country that need to be consulted along with a professional travel consultant to make such institutions.
Best example is the remote tourist destination place called Mongolia people live in tents like nomads except in Ulaanbaatar. But what is commonly found there is a museum at each place- that takes you back to understand everything about these tribes you want to know.
You have rich experience in tourism at global level. Why don’t you share your varied experiences with government?
(Laughs) Well if they can afford me – I am ready. Just give me two years, I will change the face of tourism here. It is ripe time. Kashmir tourism is rebounding and certainly at this stage we need a professional who has his eyes on everything and will reset the things in the most professional way. Kashmir demands a professional who is well travelled, visionary, articulate to the last detail to set this Industry up once for all. Today’s trend is people out in the west are looking at new destinations and Kashmir can be one of them provided we give a free hand to professionals to bring it to the International level. We need to create a buzz in the World that Kashmir is back. That only experts and professionals can do. It is high time that we will leave a strong foundation in this Industry so that we live forever. Technology has changed everything and we need to live up to that. It is now or never.
What in your opinion can change the face of tourism in Kashmir?
If I am to do it, I would change everything. I mean everything needs an overhauling. We do not have a work culture here that needs to be developed. We need to improvise on all aspects because everything is interlinked. If we do not do the progress or development on all fronts simultaneously, we will not live longer. Tourism infrastructure with world class facility in all categories and areas, all related crafts and their departments, all gardens and parks, all monumental sites, cleanliness, traffic, everything needs a face lift. I mean professionally and all those departments have to come to one banner to work for a better tomorrow. It is achievable provided we draft a plan, implement and monitor it sincerely and professionally. Why cannot we be the role models for the rest of the nation?
What lacks our tourism sector?
We lack in all areas. We already have so much of visual pollution here and we are adding to that to make it worst. We are adding corrugated iron walls all along the beautiful scenic roads that lead to these beautiful destinations and resorts. No one is paying attention. JKTDC has classic locations wherever you go be it restaurants, accommodations, but show me one such room they have today they can be proud of. Show me one clean bathroom we can use right from the time tourists land here at the Airport. We are not able to ban plastic here.
A small example we can follow is Bhutan – no plastic, no smoking, and all the facades of every building have to be uniform, no matter where you make them, there has to be a local architectural touch to it. On the contrary, we are losing our heritage that needs attention and implementation. Look at so much of politics and bureaucracy in even running tourist vehicles within our own state . A Ladakh tourist vehicle cannot ply on the roads here just because they do not allow our vehicles to ply there. It is an operational hazard, has anyone thought about it. Ladakh is better than Tibet – has anyone exploited that in the world of Tourism.
Is there need for marketing Kashmiri as a complete tourist destination?
Of course. Tourism is an industry without boundaries. We have tremendous potential here. Kashmir is a great place for wedding destination. When Udaipur can generate hundreds of crores out of one small Island called Jagmandir, why cannot we? And if we do it professionally there is no end to it. This is a world class place for Bird watchers. When Bharatpur National Park spread on 29 square kilometers can attract bird watchers across continents, why cannot Kashmir or Ladakh? We need to draft a plan to venture in this field. It is amazing that people visit Rajasthan to see this rare bird species called Bar headed geese, a native of Ladakh, because it migrates in winters. These people have created resorts around these water bodies where this bird nests and what have we done? Show me how many tourists we attract in this field? How many educated and qualified Naturalists we have in Kashmir. We have just one who has learned everything on his own because he enjoys being in the forest.
Everyone here knows how to talk but implementation and credibility is zero. We need to change that opinion. Do we have a professional guide out in the state? It is a wakeup call. Tourism can employ huge number of people and we need infrastructure for that. And if delivered sincerely by the government, Kashmir does not need any other Industry.
Can we turn traditional Kashmiri Wazwan as attraction for tourists?
Wazwan is unique to Kashmir but has any restaurant served it with authenticity, we are yet to see it. Today’s Tourism is related with culinary experience, there is a dedicated sect of people who travel to taste the different cuisines in the world. This field needs immediate attention. Recently on one of the leading magazines published from USA in Culinary called “Saveur” has done a fabulous article on our cuisine. I believe we are the only ones left in the world who have such rich culture of cuisine. But this needs to be introduced to the outside world. We have no quality restaurants here in Kashmir. We have to create Organic farms and restaurants that serve organic food. I remember travelling through Japan and in Tokyo where there are few restaurants which serve organic food fresh and dried. Trust me, months in advance we have to reserve tables there and similarly people queue up there in fresh vegetable markets for organic food before the merchant comes with his produce. It is a novelty and we are running away from it.
Irony is it was our culture as we did not use any pesticides until very recently. A good restaurant with good food and service is the need of the hour here. Follow the New York City, Istanbul patterns make them smaller and have cordial atmosphere and interiors with personalized attention will make it happen for you.
Houseboats industry is on verge of extinction. Do you believe there is scope for its revival?
Houseboats are our heritage, protect that and do whatever it requires to preserve it. Help the houseboat industry to revive and bring in International standards in them be it sanitation, interiors, culinary, housekeeping or service. No place in the world has such lavish and unique accommodations. That is enough to attract the foreigners. I remember asking a guest who was with me while we were in Mongolia that what attracted you to travel there. He said besides Nadam festival, it was Ger accommodation, which is unique to Mongolia. The second best thing is I would protect my Heritage – architecture and culture then improvise on it. We can very well add a few things from Venice to it and revive water transport with modern and traditional concept. I mean go back to good old days with modern gadgets and technologies. Look at Istanbul, Greek Islands and Venice. They can be our best examples how they have preserved their architecture and heritage.
Do you believe that Kashmir needs strong Tourism policy?
Kashmir badly needs one. We need to have a road map, which we never have drafted. We need a strong professional head who drafts a plan called Tourism Policy, then implements it along with other departments involved and most importantly monitors its execution. Create a Task force that will create an atmosphere for free tourism. Tourism Forex in India has crossed Rs60,000 crores from Januaury-June’15, a growth of almost eight percent from last year and a foreign footfall of almost 4 million in this period have come to India. It is a serious concern for a professional like me how many of them have come to Kashmir and why cannot we attract just 20 percent of that number? So what my point is we have to adopt a policy how to approach foreign countries to revive foreign footfall. I have travelled in Egypt and Sri Lanka when ground situations were worst but it did not affect tourism. So what we lack is approach and professional convincing.
Should only professionals be involved in running the tourism sector?
That is not my point. To be a good professional you need to be a good student too. Anyone who is a good student and qualifies a civil service examination does not qualify him to be the CEO of the resort or a tourist destination. We need visionary, talented and well-travelled people to head these institutions. Yes, if they opt to go into the Travel and Tourism sector after they qualify the examination, I suggest they need go through a rigorous training session, travel and understand the requirements of a traveler. I would send them out to New Zealand, China and Switzerland not for shopping but for training. Tourism is a public relation department. Unless you are not trained for it how can you become a good host and deliver at the same time. Government has to look at it seriously as this Industry is the face of the state. You do not need putting ads and doing seminars, we are mistaken that it attracts tourism. Health of Tourism industry depends on word of mouth, if we do well we survive. A professional writer can be more effective than conferences. That should be the criteria to have a professional heading this institution who will sit with them and compare the rest of the world with his state and hence promote tourism. If we look at the world tourism India gets a tip of an iceberg even though we claim that it has reached 7-10 million now. What is the percentage we get and why perhaps because there is no professionalism. We are dependent on our Delhi agents, who sell our place and we cannot despite having so many talented people in this Industry. They need to be trained for that. This is where the government should invest to bring them to a level they can compete on their own. We need to create our own customers and clients who should tell their agent look I want to go to Kashmir.
You have been regularly travelling to various countries. Which place fascinated you most?
Central Asian and Middle East countries are my favorite regions. Perhaps because I understand their culture, architecture. That is the cradle of Civilization I love taking tours and going back there. Each time I am there I learn something new. Kashmiris must travel to Uzbekistan to learn about their roots and how they have preserved their culture despite Russian invasion and interference which is obvious even now. But they are seriously a role model we must adopt because they have revived and are preserving their heritage.
Travel changes us, sometimes superficially, sometimes profoundly. It is a class room without walls. I have reached a stage where I need to give it back what I have learnt in my travels. Kashmir is an untouched gold mine and if catered properly with International standards in mind, it can be turned as most travelled destination.