Good Intentions, Wrong Approach

Greater Kashmir

For good results we need a better approach so that we see the best in future, M Ashraf comments on the state of tourism in J&K

The recent controversy regarding auction of plots in Gulmarg for development of modern “Tourism Infrastructure”, which has been blown into a major political issue is a typical example of good intentions getting messed up by a wrong approach. There can be no denying the fact that the Tourism is an important economic activity for Kashmir. The potential is so vast and varied that we can develop some of the best destinations in the world for both summer as well as winter tourism. In fact, International Tourism can be the main economic activity for Kashmir. So far we have not exploited even 20% of our available potential. However, the major handicap has been the prevailing situation. Tourism is a peace time activity. No one wants to go for holiday and leisure to a place which is beset with instability and violence. In spite of our best efforts both from the Government as well as the private sector we have yet to get an appreciable number of organised up market tourists.
They still shy away from Kashmir. It is true that we lack world class infrastructure and to improve it we do need investments. China has over US$ 300 billion foreign investments and they have the best infrastructure in this part of the world. However, to improve infrastructure auctioning of plots on long lease is not the first step. The right approach would be to get a proper plan of action with clear demarcation of priorities prepared through some professional consultants and experts in the first instance. We must have a perspective for next 20 years or so. Ad hoc measures taken on the spur of the moment mostly result in waste of time and resources. Before going in for new infrastructure, we should upgrade the existing infrastructure to reasonable levels. The entire infrastructure has remained in disuse for last decade and a half. During this period it has even become obsolete in certain respects. The hoteliers and other players in the tourism sector have not been able to make up the losses suffered by them during the years of turmoil. The correct approach would be to motivate banks to advance deferred repayment loans with 100% subsidised interest by the Government to the tourism entrepreneurs for upgrading their existing infrastructure.
The repayment could start after 5 years or so by which time tourism flow into the state would get stabilised. The loans could be advanced in all the three regions of the State. Before advancing the loans, the up gradation plans should be scrutinised by a committee of experts appointed by the Government so that there is uniformity as well as adherence to international standards in provision of these facilities. The assistance should be extended to all the segments of the trade; accommodation, transport, and recreation. In order to ensure optimum and proper use of these resources, the entire exercise would need to be monitored.
In the second phase, a two pronged approach is needed. On one hand, the Government has to get sites identified for future development of world class tourism infrastructure depending upon projected arrivals. This exercise should also include identification of potential tourist areas for setting up of new resorts for diversification of the product. This process has to be entrusted to some reputed professionals and experts in the field. There are a large number of professional agencies in the field of tourism which use the most modern methodology involving satellite imaging and specialised computer software to identify the most potential areas for tourism development. On the other hand, the prospective local entrepreneurs themselves should be asked to submit proposals for involving reputed multi-national chains and reputed agencies in the tourism related activities in various segments such as accommodation, transportation, entertainment, and recreation. The proposals should be either joint ventures or involving simple franchising on BOT (Build Operate and Transfer) basis for a specified period of time which is usually 15 or 20 years. After this period the property reverts to local entrepreneur and in case he is unable to take over the same, it gets automatically transferred to the Government. Such entrepreneurs should be asked to specify the assistance and facilitation required by them from the Government side to enable them to undertake these ventures and the same should be extended to them with the minimum involvement of lengthy bureaucratic procedures through single window clearance system.
During this entire exercise the Government will have to play the role of a facilitator as well as a regulator to ensure creation of standard facilities and services. The Government would also have to extend assistance in marketing of these new products within the country and abroad. The promotion and marketing in the present competitive atmosphere is a very expensive proposition beyond the scope and means of the private entrepreneurs. The most important requirement for the success of this project is to make it totally apolitical. The recent controversy has amply demonstrated the damage which this activity can suffer due to politicisation. Unfortunately the basic issues got totally clouded by very emotive political hype. It was very distressing to see the original authors of the Land Grants Act to fan the emotions on baseless allegations more than any one else! In terms of a typical Kashmiri proverb, it was (Gass Tulain Thape) clutching at straws. Desperate attempts of a drowning man. In the first instance it is doubtful if any outsiders are interested in investing in Kashmir in any sector of the economy? Not to talk of investing, people in high income group are not even prepared to come on exploratory visits. I have failed to motivate any of the Middle Eastern investors with sizeable resources to even visit Kashmir for a short duration in spite of continuous efforts of last three years. The adverse media image of Kashmir as a “Trouble Spot” scares away even the normal high end visitors.
The adverse travel advisories issued by most of the European Countries and USA force all the insurance companies to even refuse extension of ordinary travel insurance. Extending insurance cover to investments in Kashmir is out of question! A number of power projects could not be executed because of refusal of the Central Government to extend counter guarantees to various foreign construction companies. It is our misfortune that some of the short sighted and selfish politicians have used tourism as a barometer for projecting political normalcy. Tourism has been converted into a political constituency. No politician in any other trouble spot in the world misuses tourism for furthering a political agenda. It is a purely economic activity and should be left alone as such. No one projects bumper horticulture produce, handicrafts export, and other similar activities as an index of normalcy. Then why is tourism singled out for this purpose? The fault also lies with some members of the tourism fraternity who are equally responsible for politicising their trade. It is right time for the Government to get out of the business of tourism and leave it totally to professionals in the field like some of the developed countries where tourism is considered an important economic activity in the private sector. Recently a former colleague had suggested setting up of a National Tourism Authority but he had made the usual mistake of proposing the State Chief Minister as the Chairman of this Apex Body thereby again bringing in the political overtones. Tony Blair is not the Chairman of the British Tourist Authority. It is always Tourism Professionals and Hospitality Experts who head such organisations. Why cannot we too think on similar lines? Unless we learn to do that soon, we will end up in banishing tourism from Kashmir for ever!
(Author is the former DG Tourism, J & K, and can be mailed at: ashrafmjk@gmail.com)