(In spite of tall claims from various politicians and the government functionaries about Tourism being the backbone of Kashmir’s economy, the sector seems to have lost government’s priority!)
Kashmir has been a well-known Tourist destination throughout our history. In earlier times, great travelers used to visit the valley and describe its beauty in their travelogues and other writings. Before partition Kashmir was a very important holiday spot for the British especially the British Army officers who would visit with their families. Most important tourist resort those days used to be Gulmarg. In fact, it was known as the Golfers’ Paradise. Subsequently, in mid-thirties skiing was introduced here and it became the only resort this side of Suez where one could ski. To cater to tourists visiting the valley the government had set up a Visitor’s Bureau. The house boat in Kashmir is also a creation of the Tourism activity. In fact, the British wanted to build a guest house but could not do so because of the Maharaja’s strict state subject law under which no outsider could own land in Kashmir. The British came with an innovation. They proposed building a house on water in the form of a houseboat. No land was involved in it. In time, this became the most attractive novelty of Kashmir especially for the foreign tourists.
The real tourism activity started only after the entry permits which had been mandatory during Maharaja’s rule were abolished in mid-fifties of the last century. Till that time both the people leaving the state as well as those entering it needed permits almost like a visa! The abolishing of the entry permit gave a big boost to tourism. The visitor’s bureau was upgraded to a full-fledged Directorate of Tourism. A number of new resorts in addition to Gulmarg were developed. The House boats which were earlier only on the River banks were introduced in both Dal and Nageen lakes. The Directorate of Tourism grew in importance and some of the most distinguished officers like Amar Singh, Noor Mohammad, Mir Nasarullah, D N Kachru and O N Dhar headed it. The state set up promotional offices in different cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai and so on. In late eighties the tourist arrivals reached more than seven lakhs with about sixty five thousand foreign tourists. Before the outbreak of Afghanistan war, a large number of overland buses from Europe used to come to Kashmir. In mid-seventies and eighties, adventure tourism was introduced by setting up an adventure wing in the directorate of tourism with eight fully trained officers. The wing was able to give a big boost to this aspect of tourism. People from all over the world came for mountaineering, trekking, rafting and for winter sports at Gulmarg.
However, the entire tourism activity received a tremendous set back due to the outbreak of armed militancy in nineties of the last century. The tourist flow to the valley was reduced almost to zero! Because of the growing tourism activities of seventies and eighties, sizeable investments were made in the sector which suffered a tremendous set back. Towards the late nineties and the start of the present century, Tourism again showed promising revival. The figures almost touched a million. Especially a large number of tourists from South East Asia including Malaysia started visiting Kashmir. There were a number of political upheavals in the valley starting from 2008 dispute about alleged transfer of land to Amarnath Shrine Board. Again there were problems in 2010 and 2012. The tourism would have continued in spite of the problems but very unfortunately, the politicians tried to use tourism as a barometer of political normalcy which attracted adverse reaction from the other side. Normally, Tourism should have been left as a normal economic activity like handicrafts, fruit and so on. In spite of all the upheavals, adventure tourists continued visiting Kashmir especially the skiing and other winter sports continued all through the turmoil. The winter sports at Gulmarg never stopped all through the disturbed years. In view of this the Government needs to lay maximum stress on promoting this type of tourism. In fact, a helicopter service can be introduced between Srinagar Airport and Gulmarg. Adventure Tourism activities in Kargil and other parts of Ladakh can be dovetailed with a short stay in the valley. Unfortunately, at the moment there is no air service between Srinagar and Kargil and only a single flight every week between Srinagar and Leh.
Apart from various infrastructural requirements, the adventure tourism needs trained manpower both in the state sector and the private sector. At the present moment, there are many travel agencies looking after adventure tourism such as trekking, mountaineering, rafting and skiing which have some trained manpower. Keeping in view the traffic, the requirement is much more. Presently they get Sherpas and raft guides from Nepal and other places. There is a tremendous scope to train local youth in these highly paying activities. The ski school at Gulmarg which trained the first batch of ski instructors has stopped doing so. The training could be got imparted abroad or even instructors could be invited to train the youth locally. This had been done previously when American and French instructors were regularly invited here.
However, on the government side there are no trained personnel in the directorate for supervising or handling adventure tourism. There is urgent need to recruit people connected with adventure tourism in the state tourism organization. They would also need a rescue unit which could liaise with various agencies for rescuing adventure activity participants in the event of any problems. It is time the government sincerely and honestly restores the priority which the tourism sector had been enjoying in the past. This is more so on the adventure side for which Kashmir is supposed to be the best destination in the world. In fact it is supposed to be the ultimate adventure. The only catch is that it should be taken as a normal economic activity without using it as a barometer of political normalcy!
Mohammad Ashraf, I.A.S. (Retired), Former Director General Tourism, Jammu & Kashmir