(The ideal thing to keep the Tourist inflow appreciable and protect the environment is to start dedicated charter flights from some of the most potential markets to destinations in Kashmir)
The most beneficial aspect of Tourism is “Sustainable Tourism” which strikes a balance between the tourist in flow and preservation of environment. Globally Tourism is supposed to be booming business. It is supposed to be more than 5% of the global economic turnover and employs more than 200 million people globally and is the fastest growing industry. It is not enough to have potential to develop tourism but it is also mandatory to preserve the environment which is the main moving force to attract tourists. The balance between tourist flow and the environment can best be maintained by going for charter tourism. Many destinations in Europe especially the natural parks have gone for controlled charter tourism. In India, Goa has been the best destination for charter tourism. They had been getting over 1200 charters from Russia every winter to a number of beach resorts which they have. Warm and sunny beaches are the biggest attraction for the Russians living in sub-zero temperatures deprived of all the sunshine. This year there was some problem because of economic conditions in Russia and Dubai offering better and cheaper alternate beaches.
In Kashmir, we have an ideal destination in winter in Gulmarg where people from many areas can come in charters. In spite of uncertain political conditions Gulmarg did have a large number of foreign skiers during the current winter. In recent years, Gulmarg was visited by a large number of Russian skiers. Similarly, during summer a large number of people in groups have been visiting Kashmir to enjoy stay in house boats on the Dal Lake from South East Asia especially Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and so on. These days these groups have to change planes in New Delhi as there are no direct international flights to Kashmir in spite of having a fully equipped international airport. It may not be possible to have regular international flights to and from the Srinagar airport for security reasonsbut there should normally be no problem in allowing chartered flights from certain dedicated markets from South East Asia. There is even possibility of starting such direct charter flights from Middle East and Central Asia. In fact, there is a workable project to have the charter flights connecting Srinagar trip of even couple of days with a week’s stay in Ladakh. They could finally fly out of Ladakh directly to Delhi and their home destination.
To start charter operations the State Tourism Department will have to do the exploratory work. Firstly, they would have to identify tourist destinations for which charter flights could be arranged. Then some of the private airlines operating international flights will have to be contacted. Indigo, Air Asia are operating flights to some foreign destinations in South East Asia. If the airlines are willing then some of the well-known tour operators who have been sending regular groups to Kashmir need to be motivated to operate groups through air charters on a regular basis. For clearances the Director General Civil Aviation (DGCA) will have to be requested to permit the operation of these flights on a regular basis which could be weekly or so.
As the Srinagar Airport is probably labelled high risk airport from security point of view, it may be advisable to initially have all travel formalities including immigration, customs etc. completed at Delhi both ways. This was the procedure adopted in early eighties of the last century when Dr. Farooq Abdullah the then Chief Minister had motivated Air India to operate Srinagar-Singapore flight. The flight was subsequently discontinued for some unknown reasons! Air India had also started a Srinagar-Dubai flight about a decade back but this flight too was discontinued on the plea of being uneconomical as Pakistan had refused permission to overfly their area for flights taking off from Srinagar which made a three hour flight get extended to almost five and half hours.
The proposal to start charters will have to be supported by the Union Ministries of Tourism and Civil Aviation. The State Government needs to set up a dedicated group of officers and some well-known travel agents to work on the proposal and follow up with various authorities and agencies within India and abroad. Well, as usual the million dollar question is will they do it? The Governor’s administration could very well do it as it can approach all concerned authorities directly at the highest level without any political motives. Let us hope they initiate a proposal on these lines. In case it does not happen, the mainstream parties eagerly waiting for the state assembly elections should make it a workable agenda item. It may be a better proposition then many unachievable utopian items they have been bandying about in their election manifestos!
Mohammad Ashraf, I.A.S. (Retired), Former Director General Tourism, Jammu & Kashmir