In spite of the tall claims regarding tourist figures, the real high end tourism from domestic markets as well as abroad still shies away from Kashmir
For last couple of years we have been repeatedly bombarded with tourist figures exceeding a million or even a million and a half. In fact, projections for the next year are aimed at over 2 million tourists. However, no one has been talking about the real status of the people visiting the valley! Mere figures do not convey the real story. Tourist arrivals which incidentally may include people working here do not make the difference. In reality, the class of tourists and the number of nights they stay in hotels and other accommodation tell the true story. There are many other myths about tourism touted by the very strong lobby it represents as well as by almost all the politicians from all the sides using it as the barometer of political normalcy. In real economic terms it is not at all the backbone of Kashmir’s economy but represents less than 10% of the GDP. The three most important sectors of Kashmir’s economy are agriculture, horticulture, and handicrafts exported all over the world. Tourism is an additional resource, basically an employment generator. Because of being a service oriented industry it generates thousands of seasonal jobs. The basic requirement for the development of tourism anywhere in the world is the “Peace”. Unfortunately, our part of the world has been in continuous turmoil and one never knows when the fuse will blow out? In spite of million or so tourists visiting Kashmir, the unsafe image of the destination refuses to go away especially because of the biased travel advisories of some western countries.
Even if we concede that due to somewhat settled conditions of last couple of years the tourism industry is booming, there is one important catch. The really paying high end tourism is still shying away from Kashmir. By high end tourism one does not mean the top class very rich tourists. It would mean the upper middle class. The really high end tourism of Monaco type will never come to Kashmir. Apart from the political situation, there are many other handicaps. For the domestic high end market it is the lack of high class infrastructure and the present day ease to travel abroad to better managed peaceful destinations. In fact right now more Indians travel abroad for holiday than the foreign visitors coming here! In the case of foreign high end tourism, the main handicap apart from the image of an unsafe destination is the lack of direct connectivity to international air routes. To visit Kashmir foreigners from all over the world have to pay an add-on fare from Delhi to Srinagar and back. The so called International airport at Srinagar is a practical joke played on Kashmiris by Sonia Gandhi and her government. If Srinagar had a real international air connection, the western travel advisories would be off in a matter of days as the people from all over could come and go easily and see for themselves the present safe travel situation. One of the most frequently asked questions in the foreign travel marts is about the accommodations where one can stay, the availability of luxury transport, and recreation and entertainment facilities apart from the natural beauty. At present we hardly have a couple of places which may somewhat compare with the high class staying facilities available in some of the top global tourism destinations. Regarding recreation and entertainment we are confused. People do not look for the things they get in Las Vegas or Bangkok in Kashmir. However, they need recreational facilities like clubs, golf courses, bowling alleys, restaurants, and so on. Even if we have some of these, but unfortunately the management and maintenance of these is very poor. The only saleable entertainment in Gulmarg we have is a gondola ride to the top of the mountain. Rest of the time, the poor tourists are held to ransom by the ponywallas and others! In addition, we have somehow become totally unconcerned about our own living environment. Srinagar is probably one of the dirtiest cities in the sub-continent. The same is the condition of our water bodies and the historical lifeline, the River Jhelum. No one wants to visit a filthy tourism destination!
If we sincerely and honestly want to promote high end tourism which will have an impact on the economy, we have to follow a three pronged strategy. Firstly we have to clean up our own act both physically and literally. We cannot invite tourists to filthy cities, over-crowded concrete jungle resorts teeming with all sorts of people tearing the visitor’s apparels! Kashmir is touted as “Paradise on Earth”. We have to at least make it look like a clean Paradise if nothing more! We need to clean up our environment not only for tourists but our own selves. Then we have to change the attitude of people coming in contact with the tourists. No doubt there are black sheep in almost all tourist destinations who spoil the reputation of the entire population but in our case the number is becoming uncontrollable in spite of the best legislation for the protection of the interests of the tourists. Both the government and the private players in the industry have to strictly adhere to basic ethics in dealing with the tourists. The violators need to be dealt with severely by both the sides.
Next comes the infrastructure. This would involve not only the super structure in the form of accommodation, eating places, recreational avenues but also the basic infrastructure of roads, electricity, communications and so on. As already stated in the beginning, we should not expect high end or the up market foreign traffic without an international air connection. We should also not expect high end tourists to visit a destination beset with erratic power supply, strewn with dumps of garbage, pot-holed access roads to the resorts, and above everything else menaced by packs of ferocious stray dogs! The least one could do is to offer clean and hygienic places for stay and eating equal to similar places in different popular tourist destinations around the world. They could stay in comfort and enjoy the beauty of nature. The high end tourist will pay for these services but these should be worth paying for! People are now used to international chains of hotels for accommodation. They know the facilities and standards available in these. Unfortunately, we do not have in Kashmir any properties owned by various popular international hospitality chains. Some attempts were made in the past to improve the infrastructure for accommodation but the approach was flawed. The land is a sensitive issue in Kashmir. Instead of making local land available on lease to outsiders, it would be better to encourage collaborations between locals and the international chains. The joint venture, in which the land is owned by Kashmiri partners, is the best option. In fact, one can also stipulate about employees that 70% would be local and 30% outside experts in various fields. The same can hold good for restaurants and food outlets. Similarly, we need to have management contracts for our prestigious high end projects like the Golf Circuits, Cable Cars and so on. Quite a few of these after being set up with massive investments are in shambles because of mismanagent.There are many other options available to bring the infrastructure to the acceptable global level provided we have the political will to do so!
The third most important prong of the strategy is intensive marketing in the source markets both at the official level and at the industry level itself. Marketing does not mean only printing brochures, posters and calendars. It involves mounting print and electronic media campaigns not only for acquainting potential tourists in source markets about the destinations, and the facilities available there but also motivating them to travel to these destinations. Media campaigns are expensive and tourism marketing needs sizeable budgets. It is a pity that the Kashmir Tourism has the lowest budget earmarked for marketing. Chhattisgarh not a very well-known destination spends over 7 crores on advertising and marketing. They even got an award for that. The Kerala Tourism budget is 105 crores. They have earmarked 1 crore just for participation in travel marts! The J & K budget has been almost static for last few years at 5 crores or so. In mid-nineties when we restarted tourism campaigns we spent more than two crores on just Ladakh and Jammu campaigns called, “Ladakh, the land of endless discovery” and “Jammu, you won’t believe your eyes”. Recently the media had adversely reacted to the visit of a delegation of tourism officials led by the Minister to Europe and America. It seems they were not able to project and explain the purpose of their visit. In fact, they should be making a dozen such visits to foreign source markets not by themselves alone but should sponsor travel industry delegations to these areas if they are really interested in removing the adverse image of Kashmir. In reverse there should be dozens of visits by the foreign travel agents and travel media to correct the image which has been badly damaged due to turmoil of the nineties. The department should invariably participate in all the travel marts and conventions held from time to time within the country and abroad. Mere presence of a strong travel delegation from Kashmir reinforces the belief that it is safe to travel to Kashmir which is the first question asked everywhere. Instead of spending crores of rupees on a couple of dozen Tourism Development Authorities in every nook and corner of the state and creating environment destroying infrastructure, the money should be utilized in improving the basic infrastructure in existing resorts and on aggressive marketing. No doubt there is need to open new tourist areas to lessen pressure on the existing ones but these have to be taken up in a phased manner depending upon the basic criteria of tourism development, “potential, accessibility (political as well as physical), and infrastructure”. The worst handicap for high end foreign tourism has been the adverse travel advisories. Some of these may be genuine but some are also based on bias and prejudice. However, the removal of these needs intensive follow up at the consular level in Delhi and even with foreign offices of the countries issuing these in the first instance. Some years back 65 Britons were massacred in the Luxor area of Egypt. The British Foreign Office issued a very strong adverse travel advisory to its nationals regarding travel to Egypt. However, the Egyptian Foreign and Tourism Ministers camped in London for a week to assure the British Government about the safety of its nationals. The advisory was lifted only after 10 days or so. In order to avoid adverse reactions during some incidents, the Tourism Authorities have to be very active in damage control by feeding the correct information to the media. They should be having regular interaction with the media.
Thus, we should not be asking why we are missing the high end foreign and domestic traffic to Kashmir but rather whether we are doing enough to make these people feel it worth coming and be comfortable and at home in the so called “Paradise on Earth”!
The author is former Director General Tourism, J & K.