Thursday, December 8, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XXXIV (Dubai, the failed Eldorado-IV, the “Kashmir Connection”)

After my frequent trips to Dubai, I had a feeling that this place could be a very good hub of tourism and trade for Kashmir. I was very keen to get a connection established between Dubai and Kashmir. The opportunity to do so came after my retirement during the tenure of Mufti Mohammad Sayed. He was very keen to revive tourism to Kashmir from all over the world. In fact, during last few months of my service in the state tourism department, we conducted extensive tours of various metros. Mufti Sayed, the Chief Minister, himself led these promotional tours involving meetings with the travel trade and media. Immediately after the conclusion of these tours Mufti Sahib called me to his office and said that I should not think of retiring in few months. He offered to extend my services even if he had to speak to Delhi about it.
I very politely declined the offer stating that I had spent 30 years in government service and wanted to be on my own now! However, I offered to be available for any consultation or advice whenever he needed me. He did call me a number of times regarding tourism promotion after my retirement. It was in this regard that during the winter of 2003-04 before going to Dubai with my mother I met him and requested him to visit Dubai to give a boost to tourism promotion. He did keep his word and came to Dubai leading a delegation consisting of Tourism Minister and senior officers. On arrival from London, he called me to his hotel and then I was with him throughout the tour. He had meetings with the travel trade, business community, and then gave a press conference. He got a good response from different organisations. He was very keen to set up a Kashmir Trade and Travel Bureau in Dubai. In fact, he made an announcement in the press conference about it.
After his departure from Dubai, I contacted various travel and trade organisations. I had an opportunity of meeting Feroze Allana, the chairman of the IFFCO group. This a large group of companies involved in food products. He was keen to help us in starting export of some food based items from Kashmir. I was able to persuade him to send a team to Kashmir to make an on the spot assessment. I was also able to arrange a group of golfers from the Indian Golf Association, Dubai to visit and try the new Royal Spring Golf Course. The visit of the IFFCO team was quite informative. They were treated as state guests by Mufti Sahib who had a detailed meeting with them. They visited the Fisheries farm at Kokarnag, the Agriculture University at Shalimar, and the Floriculture set up in Siraji Bagh. They were impressed and offered to pick up trout, some agriculture products like celery, and apple juice concentrate. This could be quite viable if there was a direct flight between Srinagar and Dubai. IFFCO also offered to take some Kashmiri Youth in their employment. They have an international set up with numerous factories and outlets. The golfers too were impressed with the Royal Spring Golf course and the other coming up courses in Gulmarg and Pahalgam. There could be an interesting weekend golf tour to Kashmir. These possibilities needed to be followed up at the highest level. However, with the departure of Mufti Sahib from the scene the project got completely shelved! Ghulam Nabi Azad only concentrated on Srinagar Airport and he did succeed in upgrading it to so called “International” level by starting a Srinagar-Dubai flight with great fanfare in presence of Sonia Gandhi. Unfortunately, the solitary weekly flight had a very short life!
In spite of the hiccups, a large number of Kashmiris have been going to Dubai for trade as well as shopping. Some have even bought property there. Dubai could be utilised by Kashmiris as an excellent hub for trade and tourism. The only requirement is that the governments in Srinagar and Delhi should be genuinely interested and should honestly try to take up the project. Dubai also has many top class adventure activities and some of the top class events are held there. It is an interesting destination not only for shopping but to participate in many international events. These include Golf, Power boat racing, horse racing, camel races, ATV competitions, and so on. These events could be on a smaller scale attracted to Kashmir by approaching the organisers. To make Dubai-Kashmir connection a success, the private sector in Kashmir would have to take the initiative in approaching various organisations there and start some viable projects. The State Government needs to impress upon the Central Government the necessity and consequent advantages of an air connection between Srinagar and Dubai which could be easily extended to Jeddah to make it viable round the year. In fact, this connection could have sufficient cargo load apart from tourists and pilgrims.
There are no two opinions that the best market for Kashmir is the up market domestic tourist. The figures are staggering. Over 300 million! The concerned authorities for reasons best known to them seem to be concentrating in attracting western tourists. However, almost all western governments have very severe adverse advisories on travel to Kashmir. The state tourism officers have been trying their best to get these advisories removed or modified. But this is not happening because of a vicious circle. All the foreign governments say that the entire state of Jammu & Kashmir has been declared a disturbed area by the government. No insurance company is prepared to cover people visiting officially declared disturbed area. No travel agency is prepared to start group tourism to Kashmir without insurance cover for its clients. So in regard to foreign tourists, it may be better to concentrate on Middle East where no government has issued any adverse advisory for travel to Kashmir. Dubai may be the most suitable place to promote tourism from West Asia to Kashmir! It could also be a trade hub. Let us hope somebody takes the initiative and the government backs it!

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