Friday, March 11, 2011

Adventure in Kashmir

Generally Kashmir is taken as an enchanting and captivating luxury tourist destination where one can enjoy a leisurely holiday in the most wonderful climate surrounded by some of the world’s best scenery. Not many know that Kashmir is also probably the world’s most challenging destination for what is known as the “Adventure Tourism”. One can safely say that Kashmir is the “Ultimate Adventure”! For quite some time there has been an appreciable change in the pattern and type of holidays which people generally take and in particular the younger generation. It is the “Active or Adventure Tourism” which involves holidays with physical exercise. Some of the activities which are quite popular are mountaineering, rock climbing, trekking, hill walking, mountain biking, white water rafting and kayaking, Para-sailing, and hang gliding, hot air ballooning, and a number of other sports. In winter apart from the normal on prepared piste skiing, people in large numbers go for cross-country skiing, ski-mountaineering, tobogganing, and winter climbing. Our state has some of the most challenging locations for undertaking all these activities. In fact, for a number of these adventure sports it can be the last frontier or the ultimate challenge. Even though due to the turmoil of last two decades, the valley had virtually been closed down for Adventure Tourism by the security establishment, yet Ladakh continued to have large groups of adventurers both in summer and winter. One of the most frequented areas prior to the outbreak of militancy had been the Kishtwar mountain areas which continue to be still off the limits for foreigners. In spite of numerous difficulties, some adventure activities continued in the valley also. Thanks to some courageous house boat owners, they continued to take trekkers to Gangabal via Sonamarg and Naranag. Similarly, the Swiss born French skier Sylvain Saudan carried on heli-skiing in the toughest conditions. However, in the overall context, the adventure tourism not only got stalled but all new areas remained unexploited. During last few years, the State Tourism Department has initiated a number of steps to revive the adventure activities for tourists. White water rafting on Sindh and Lidder Rivers was introduced on commercial scale. Some white water rafting championships have also been held. Car Rallies were conducted on Leh-Srinagar sector as part of the Raid de Himalaya. A rally was conducted on the Mughal Road. There were other adventure activities. However, the full potential is yet to be tapped.
The declaration of the year 2011 as the Adventure Tourism Year is a very welcome and timely declaration by the Department. One advantage with the adventure tourists is that they are very well versed with the geography of the different tourist areas and are not easily put off by wide media coverage of any incidents of violence or otherwise. In contrast, the normal tourists get easily scared and cancel their holidays. The State Tourism Department needs to highlight the potential by inviting some top adventure sports persons like world famous mountaineers, skiers, para-sailors, hang gliding experts, white water rafters, and canoeists to personally see and publicise the potential we have for these activities. In the past a number of international level events have been held in this field. The best publicity for exposing this potential is to hold some events with participation of well known persons in the field. In fact, Kashmir has the capacity to absorb thousands of adventure tourists in different spots dispersed all over state. Another advantage with adventure tourism is that this activity does not require setting up of any elaborate infrastructure. Most of the participants bring their own equipment and only requirement is a dependable rescue service to take care of any eventualities. Most of the Adventure Tourism activities are part of Eco-Tourism in the larger context but one has to regulate these very strictly to avoid damage to fragile mountain environment. This is especially so in our case where the environment has already been vandalised by greedy people. One has to aim for sustainable tourism. We must determine the carrying capacity of our areas for these activities and then ensure that we do not exceed the optimum level as is being done in a number of countries. A typical example is Bhutan. The ideal way is to enforce a strict regulatory control over the entry of various expeditions and groups. These can be charged some environment levy to pay for keeping the mountains clean. Such a levy is already being charged by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) from foreign mountaineering expeditions, which gives a share of all these royalties to Himalayan states for undertaking cleaning expeditions. However, trekking groups and some other adventure activity participants are not obliged to go through IMF. These have to be controlled by the local authorities. All these regulatory activities concerning environment and management of different areas can generate appreciable employment. In addition one would need guides, high altitude porters, and trained instructors. These can be recruited from among the local youth in these remote mountain areas and trained in some of the mountaineering institutes already existing in the state such as the Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering in Pahalgam. Developing Adventure Tourism on a larger scale can also give boost to import and sale of some of the specialised equipments required for these activities. In view of these possibilities it is very commendable for the State Tourism Authorities to make Adventure Tourism as an important thrust area for future development of tourism in the State. Kashmir, hopefully, would one day become the “Ultimate Destination” for all adventure lovers of the world!
We may have very high hopes for boosting tourism especially the adventure one but there are some people who have been habitually throwing spanners in the works! There is a dichotomy in promoting tourism to Kashmir. While on one hand everyone from President downwards claims Kashmir to be normal and the State Government is going all out with its publicity campaigns throughout the world as part of “Incredible India” slogan, on the other hand the foreign agencies of the Government of India are discouraging tourists from visiting Kashmir. The State Tourism Department has engaged a world class publicity firm to promote tourism. Their entire effort becomes zero when the Prime Minister of the country says that he is keeping his fingers crossed about the situation in Kashmir next summer! It has also been reported that some groups of Iranian Tourists wanted to visit Kashmir but they were refused visas by the Indian embassy there. Similarly, it has been reported that there are standing instructions with the field officers of the Research and Analysis Wing posted in various embassies in the Middle East to discourage Arabs from visiting Kashmir. In fact, the Srinagar-Dubai direct flight is also alleged to have been taken off permanently for this reason. Most of the Indian Tourist Offices abroad are advising potential tourists to visit Himachal Pradesh instead of Kashmir because of the disturbed situation!
One wishes the State Tourism Department well in their efforts to promote tourism to Kashmir but they need to first convince Government of India that promotion of tourism abroad especially the adventure one is in the “National Interest” so that appropriate instructions are issued to the concerned to facilitate foreign tourists to Kashmir and not to discourage them. In the present circumstances, the first adventure is in getting to Kashmir itself in spite of various security related hassles!

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