ONE OF THE lucrative constituents of the tourism industry in India is Pilgrimage tourism. This activity has no limitation of season or the standard of infrastructure otherwise required for special interest tourists. In entire India the pilgrimage centres like Tirupathi in south, Suntemple at Orissa , Badrinath and Kedarnath in Garhwal , Haridwar in Uttarakhand , Chardevi in Himachal and at many other Hindu Pilgrimage centers, the local people have a major role in handling the arrangements at all levels. The hospitality sector, transport, group traveling, catering, Prasad shops and other pilgrimage related arrangements are mostly managed by the local entrepreneurs with supervision of the civil authorities. Similarly at the Muslim shrines the basic necessities are handled by the private entrepreneurs mostly locals. The management of main sanctum sanctorum, the daily rituals and some property within the shrine complexes which are rented out to private entrepreneurs are under the Auqaf or board of the respective shrine. None of these boards or trusts can be above the government or the judiciary in a democratic country.
In our own state the Jammu province is blessed with the temples and shrines, the most popular and second most visited shrine in India is Mata Vaishnodevi Shrine situated in Trikuta hills at an altitude of 5200ft and around 12 km from base camp in Katra town. Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board (SMVDSB) was created by the then governor of J&K Jagmohan, when most of the land was purchased from the local people near the cave shrine and enroute from Banganga . The board also provided land at Katra base camp in exchange of the land procured from the local people. Instant permission were also given the locals owning land in and around Katra to construct the luxury hotels, guest houses , sarais , tour and travel offices, restaurants and dhabas in order to facilitate the yatries. The board operates few budget class sarais and yatri niwas type accommodation at Katra and en route cave shrine. It has leased out most of their properties to the private local entrepreneurs, apart from this, the shelter sheds, langars, medical centre and board offices have been constructed from Katra to Cave. The private sector in tourism industry in Katra is managing most of the yatries/tourist traffic. These people are doing much more business daily than anyone else in Jammu province including shrine board business excluding the donations received at the bhawan by the board. The success of the huge tourist inflow (60lac /annum) to VaishniDeviji is because of the efforts of private entrepreneurs and the department of tourism who take care of the yatries/tourists right from Jammu to Katra. The travel trade of this area has played enormous role in diversifying tourism to the rest of the destinations like Patnitop, Mansar , Jammu city and to Kashmir division as well.
It is due to pilgrimage tourism to Katra that Jammu province has observed a massive development both at economic and social level. The administration , diversification enforcement and diversification of yatries is managed by the government departments like Tourism, NAC, JK police, health, PHE and PDD whereas the Yatra permission slips, Pooja paats, managing properties, compensations , and other rituals connected with the holy shrine is coordinated by the SMVDSB.
Tourism industry in India has bloomed by selling culture, traditions and heritage the involvement of local people is the essence of tourism. Amarnath Yatra is a discovery of a Muslim shepherd from Pahalgam area, ever since, the yatra has been conducted by the support of local people and the administration. The ponnywalas, palkiwalas, pittoos, labourers , medical and paramedical staff, police, transporters , hoteliers, houseboat owners, travel agents and rest of the civil administration has been involved in making the Yatra successful for decades now from Pahalgam and Sonamarg.
All this is possible when we have a healthy environment and atmospheric condition. Today huge investments are made to create eco-friendly tourism activities and every human activity where a threat to environment is visualized. The extension of Amarnath Yatra from two weeks to two months was a positive act to facilitate the pilgrims with longer duration that equally benefited the local entrepreneurs. However the unrestrained flow of yatries which has bulged to an enormous number of around 6 to 10 thousand per day is certainly hazardous for the fragile ecology of our valley.
Not only eco-friendly tourism activities but also people friendly policies have to be adopted – sustainable tourism can only create sustainable economies. A mere tinge of fanaticism, restriction on local peoples' involvement or any kind of power play while organizing pilgrimages in the precarious Indian society would simply agitate the local community that will create communal disharmony and even debacle for the governments. In today's time saffornisation, racialism or any kind of fanaticism has to take a back seat in order to witness economic development. Movement of the people may be named as yatra but in reality it is a part of tourism industry where this branch has been rightly named as Pilgrimage Tourism. In a state like J&K where tourism leads the headlines in domestic and international markets, unsolicited actions and delayed governance from state or central authority causes irreparable loss to the industry and to the society at large which is hard to get rid off for many tourist seasons to follow.
(Basharat Rashid is a Travel Writer. Feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org)