After “Azadi”, the Tourism is the most talked about subject in J & K. A very misleading impression has been created that Tourism is the base of all economic activities in the state and especially in the valley of Kashmir. No doubt Tourism is a very important part of the economic activity but it is definitely not the base and the state has survived without this activity in the upheaval and turmoil of nineties when the activity had ground to a complete halt. At best at the moment it as an additional economic activity and gives seasonal employment to about 2% of the population. However, it must also be stated that this activity has the potential of becoming an important pillar of the economy if complete peace prevails in the state. Again there is the rider of sustainable tourism. The activity especially in the Kashmir valley is motivated by the most enchanting environment and a very salubrious climate. One has to balance the growth of Tourism to the carrying capacity of our environment otherwise there is the danger of the proverbial killing of the goose laying the golden eggs!
Sometime back Arsalan Yousaf published an article on Tourism in a local newspaper giving facts and figures about its being an economic activity. According to him, “Tourism contributes only 7.93 % to the gross domestic product (GSDP) of Kashmir and provides livelihood to only about 2% of its population. In contrast, agriculture constitutes an important sector of Kashmir’s economy as around 70% of the population derives its income directly or indirectly from this sector. Agriculture also absorbs 49% of the total work force of the state with 42% as cultivators and 7% as agricultural labourers depending directly on agriculture for their livelihood”. According to him, Tourism being primarily a peace time activity, it is not prudent to base our economy on this sector alone especially being in a conflict zone. The experience of nineties should make us more cautious.
In spite of all these observations, we could still continue to promote Tourism as a complimentary assistance to the economy till situation stabilizes. Unfortunately, instead of dealing with it as purely an economic activity like the export of fruit, carpets and other handicrafts, the Tourism has been politicised as a barometer of political normalcy both by the State and the Central Governments. No one claims Kashmir is normal when hundreds of crores worth fruit, carpets and other handicrafts are exported from Kashmir to different parts of the country and even abroad. However, as soon as tourists start arriving, every politician climbs a pulpit to claim that Kashmir is normal! Tourism continues to flourish in many conflict ridden areas like Israel and Palestine, or many spots in South East Asia because none of their politicians claim tourism to be the barometer of political normalcy.
Apart from Tourism being used as a tool for propaganda by the politicians, they also interfere in its planned development and streamlining of various tourist friendly procedures. There are certain basic criteria for developing a potential area for Tourism. However, in Kashmir these criteria are totally bypassed and political considerations take the upper hand. Tourism is believed to be a magic wand which is expected to bring prosperity to any area it touches! More than 20 Tourism Development Authorities have been set up by spending hundreds of crores of rupees. These pristine areas have been saddled with Tourist Reception Centres, Tourist Bungalows, and huts. This money should have been instead used for improving basic infrastructure in the existing resorts and only a few select areas should have been taken up for future development.
These authorities instead of being headed by tourism professionals and experts are under engineers and administrators. These days development of tourism all over the world is handled by experts in various fields and one has to go for sustainable tourism only to maintain a balance between environment and the influx of tourists. Here, these developments take place on the basis of a political constituency and vote bank politics.One would like to also emphasize here that the government should not get into the business of developing tourism commercially. This activity should be left totally and absolutely to private players and government should only be a facilitator and a regulator.
In addition to political interference in developmental plans even streamlining tourism related activities goes into background because of undue meddling by politicians. A number of tourists not only go back unsatisfied but some get totally dis-satisfied and swear not to visit Kashmir again. The attitude of some players in the industry is totally unbecoming. In most of the resorts, the horsemen, the sledge bearers, the porters, and self-styled guides hold tourists as virtual hostages. They force them to use their facilities. Added to this is widespread cheating in shopping by hawkers. Some tourists have run away from resorts like Gulmarg because of the harassing attitude of these tourism players. It is not difficult to straighten these touts, and other nuisance creating persons.
The state has one of the most stringent laws known as the Registration of Tourist Trade Act 1978/82 to protect the interests of the tourists. Under this Act touting and pestering of tourists is a cognizable non-bailable offence. However, no law enforcing officer uses the Act to assist the tourists. Tourism Officers stipulated as Prescribed Authorities under this Act have magisterial powers. Written complaint of a tourist even if he is not personally present is admissible as evidence for prosecution. The Prescribed Authority has also compounding powers. But the moot point is how effectively the law is enforced. Quite often political considerations come in the way of its enforcement.
Last but not the least; the state is still without a well-defined specific “Tourism Policy” and a “Vision Document”. There is no long term perspective plan and everything is being taken up on ad hoc basis. If we are really and honestly sincere in developing tourism as a viable economic activity, we must de-politicize it and go ahead for its development in a professional manner. Otherwise it will simply continue to be used as a propaganda tool.