Thrust on getting high-end foreign tourism to Kashmir without international air connectivity is a hypocritical exercise!
Recently the State Tourism Department while celebrating the World Tourism Day arranged a panel discussion on the World Tourism Organisation’s theme for the current year, “A Billion Tourists, Billion Opportunities”! A number of travel industry representatives participated in the discussions on the topic. Most of the speakers were of the view that Kashmir is an ideal destination for the global high-end tourism. It was felt that for maximum economic benefits it is better to attract up market international and domestic high-end tourism than to go for mass budget tourism. To protect the ecology and environment which in the first instance are the main attraction in case of Kashmir, one has to plan for “Sustainable Tourism”!
There are two main requirements for attracting high-end tourism apart from the basic necessity of peace. The first is the accessibility and second is the suitable infrastructure. Given that the ultimate peace in Kashmir may be a long distance away, we can still attract tourists provided we have the requisite facilities. The present global situation rarely affords total peace in any part of the world. In the given circumstances, the one kind of tourism which has extensive possibility in Kashmir is the adventure tourism. The adventure tourist is already prepared to face the nature’s hazards. Some man made hazards do not discourage him much! In the peak of militancy, Kashmir continued to host very high-end adventure tourists from Europe and America for heli-skiing.
Then we need suitable infrastructure for high-end tourists. They need high class accommodation and transport. In regard to accommodation, some beginning has already been made by inviting some globally known hotel chains to set up properties to accommodate up market tourists. The most ideal thing is local collaboration in setting up these properties. It is also be to be ensured that local youth are trained and employed in these ventures. One could condition these properties by stipulating that these would employ at least 80% locals in different fields including overall management after training them. In the field of transport, already some good vehicles are operating. The local transporters could be motivated and assisted in going in for still better cars and luxury buses.
Now, we come to the real issue of accessibility. Sometime back Srinagar Airport was upgraded and declared to be an “International” Airport. In fact, a Dubai-Srinagar flight was also started. However, the whole exercise turned out to be something in the name only and not with honest and sincere intentions. Firstly, the Airline, Air India Express which operated the flight was an Air India subsidiary meant for the labour class in the Gulf Region. It had all economy configurations with no in-flight facilities. One of the European groups which flew to Srinagar from Dubai in this flight swore never again to fly Air India! Secondly, Pakistan did not allow overflying to aircraft flying in or out of Srinagar which increased the flying time from 3 to 5 hours and made the flight uneconomical. Allegedly, even this namesake international flight was discontinued on the intervention of security agencies. Unfortunately, the “Democratic” India is suffering from a security phobia and every positive thing gets shelved for security reasons. They have the last word!
There is a way out to both maintain the name “International” and allow direct access to high-end global tourists both leisure and adventure without any security apprehensions. Let International Charters from various foreign tourism markets be allowed to fly in direct to Srinagar. Pakistanis too will have to co-operate in allowing overflying to these International Charters coming from the west if they have any consideration for the well-being of Kashmiri people. The Charters from the South East Asia can come direct without any hindrance. Also Charters from Central Asia can come directly to Srinagar. Goa has a short season of about five months from November to March. It gets more than a 1000 charters from Russia, Central Asia, Europe and now even from Middle East. It is because of these Charters that the Tourism has received a tremendous boost. Why can’t we have a similar thing in Kashmir?
If the rulers proclaiming day in and day out Tourism to be the backbone of Kashmir’s economy sincerely want to contribute something real and practical through tourism, they should work on starting Charters to Kashmir from different Tourism Markets. This will not only give a meaningful thrust to the economy but will protect Kashmir’s fragile and sensitive ecology and environment. This will also make the Srinagar Airport somewhat “International”!