(With unprecedented decline in leisure Tourism, the ideal alternative is to promote Adventure Tourism for which Kashmir has unlimited potential)
Tourism in Kashmir has suffered the most serious set-back during the last two years. The activity during the current season has been virtually negligible compared to some earlier years. The figures were supposed to have touched almost two million just a couple of years back. Even though tourism is not the main economic activity yet it provides employment to a large number of people during the season. Being a service oriented industry all over the world it is considered as a great employer. Apart from employment, the increased number of tourists motivates many people to go for setting up of various tourism related activities. Among these the main ones are the accommodation and the transport. It also gives a boost to the sale of many handicraft products through local retailers.
Considering the potential to attract tourists not only from all over the country but from abroad, one would have expected the figures to go beyond couple of million people provided peace had prevailed. However, in the present circumstances even though the conditions are not as bad as portrayed by the totally anti-Kashmir hostile media, yet most of the leisure tourists who want to enjoy the beauty and peace of the “Paradise on Earth” get easily put off by uncertain conditions. But there is a different kind of tourist, the adventure loving tourist for whom the uncertain conditions are an added challenge! People who brave avalanches, stone falls and extremely freezing temperatures to climb mountain peaks or those who ski down some of the most difficult snow slopes with avalanches following in their trails or those moving in inflatable rafts and kayaks through the most turbulent mountain streams are not scared to come to Kashmir in spite of the unsettled local conditions. Incidentally, some of the most top skiers of the world came to Kashmir in the nineties of the last century during the peak years of militancy for heli-skiing all over the valley!
In view of the tremendous potential in adventure tourism and the urge and eagerness of adventure lovers to come to Kashmir regardless of the prevailing situation, it would be the most ideal thing to promote this specialised type of tourism. Incidentally, the present Director Tourism in Kashmir himself is a man of adventure. Apart from being the President of the Jammu & Kashmir Mountaineering and Hiking Club, he is a life member of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, the apex body of adventure in the country. He has trekked to all the mountain lakes, over the most difficult mountain trails and has participated in every type of adventure. At present the Directorate of Tourism in Kashmir is going all out for inviting top adventure sports persons from all over the world. The most ideal way of promoting an adventure destination is to organise events with participation of top world players and ensure live telecast of these events. There is no better way of convincing people about the potential for adventure activities in any particular area than this.
In recent years, ski lovers have been visiting Gulmarg from many European countries, Australia (where it is summer during our winter) and even Russia. Incidentally, Europe has more than few million skiers who are always looking for new slopes and better snow conditions. Gulmarg now has very good facilities, world class ski slopes and the most ideal off the piste ski conditions. The best selling point for Gulmarg is the number of beautiful sunny days during winter which very few ski resorts in the world have! The most intelligent way of promoting Gulmarg like the sunny beaches of Goa would be to have charters from different potential areas with helicopter lift from Srinagar Airport to Gulmarg. If, Goa’s sunny beaches can be promoted by making available the facilities of charters, why not the ski slopes of Gulmarg?
Regarding other activities such as rafting, kayaking, para-gliding, ice-climbing and even trekking, there is tremendous potential. The Tourism Department has already organised certain events involving some international participation. The Government should accord top priority in procuring equipment, setting up certain facilities like climbing walls, skating rinks and so on. This kind of adventure should be made accessible not only to tourists but also to local youth. On the pattern of the famous Tyndale Biscoe School, all educational institutions both the private ones and the government managed should make adventure sports available to the youth. This can also be a good avenue for employment once adventure tourism picks up. There have been allegations that the security forces are discouraging foreign tourists from trekking in the most attractive area of the famous Sonamarg-Gangabal trek. This needs to be looked into.
Because of uncertain conditions Kashmir has gone out of circulation as an attractive tourist destination. Once a destination goes out of circulation, it is very difficult to put it back in the circuit. However, Adventure Tourism which can be promoted easily will keep Kashmir always in circulation in spite of uncertain condition. The Government instead of spending hundreds of crores on umpteen Tourism Development Authorities which expenditure of about rupees five hundred crores has been declared infructuous by the CAG, should give maximum thrust in improving facilities in the existing resorts and promote Adventure Tourism in a big way.
Mohammad Ashraf, I.A.S. (Retired), Former Director General Tourism, Jammu & Kashmir