In a high profile Tourism meeting it was pointed out by many travel agents that they may have to stop taking their clients to the famous resort of Gulmarg due to extreme harassment faced there at the hands of unscrupulous elements. A nexus seems to have grown between various service providers enjoying political patronage to harass and then fleece innocent tourists. This is not the first instant of political interference in the streamlining of the tourism product. In these columns it has been repeatedly pointed out that the attitude and behaviour of some of the greedy locals may ultimately kill the goose laying golden eggs for them!
In almost all tourist areas of the world there are problems faced by the tourists at the hands of some unscrupulous local players. This happens especially in areas which are too much frequented by the tourists. However, all these places not only have some mechanism to deal effectively with complaints but the law enforcers are readily and easily available to address their grievances. Here, the reverse happens. The law enforcers themselves patronise these unscrupulous people against a fixed weekly or monthly share from the booty! Apart from the hand glove attitude of the local enforcement personnel, there is also political patronage these people harassing the tourists. The number of these service providers as pony men, porters, guides, sledge bearers, and outfitters extends to thousands. It is reported that only 1700 pony men are registered with the local tourist office but the actual number present on any given day during the tourist is more than 5,000.
It has been reported that the famous pony trails are the cleanest places and one enjoys walking on these. This is because of the fact that the ponies do not use these but instead are conducted on main roads and the green meadows which are littered with horse droppings. The harassment of the tourists starts right from the first stop of Tangmarg and carries on from here to Gulmarg and thence to the meadows of Kongdori, Khilanmarg and the Apharwat top. Allegedly, the outfitters in Tangmarg force the tourists to hire warm clothes, boots, jackets and so on stating that it is very cold up there and these things are a must. The drivers of tourist buses and taxis are alleged to be hand in glove with these outfitters as they deliberately halt their vehicles outside these establishments. It has also been alleged that the outfitters have been threatening these drivers that if they do not stop in front of their establishments, they will not be allowed operate safely in Gulmarg.The same threats follow regarding the uses of ponies, sledges and other facilities in Gulmarg and beyond.
The reason for such a large influx of these service providers is the go ahead for fleecing the tourists they get from the local politicians. They represent the vote banks for local legislators who want to keep them happy at all costs regardless of the fate of tourists or the impact of such an unseemly behaviour on the overall image of Kashmir Tourism. Otherwise it is not difficult for the authorities to control the situation and protect the interests of tourists. 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 stop harassment to 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.
The Tourism Department has a senior police officer on deputation known as S.P. (Enforcement) who comes from the State Police. He has a company of Police under his control to carry out the enforcement of the J & K Tourist Trade Act. In earlier times very senior police officers have served in the department and very effectively enforced the Act. There is urgent need to strengthen the enforcement wing of the Tourism Department. At the present moment we have enough police force available to ensure enforcement of the Act in all tourist resorts and areas. It has also been observed that there is sometimes rivalry or conflict of interest between the district police and the tourist police. This requires to be sorted out and a directive issued from the top brass in the police department to all concerned for safeguarding the interests of the tourists who are invited here with great fanfare by the tourism department. A single unsatisfied tourist by word of mouth can totally negate the millions of rupees publicity and promotion undertaken by the tourism department for inviting tourists to visit Kashmir.
If the golden goose of tourism is to survive and lay golden eggs for the local people, two things need to be done urgently. The Chief Minister needs to impress upon his colleagues as well as upon the opposite camp to keep tourism above politics. It should be treated purely as an economic activity and that too a clean and ethical activity. He should also direct his administration to ensure well-being and safe passage of tourists to all the places of interest as well as guarantee the services paid for by them. There should be no compromise on quality of services and the friendly welcoming treatment of these guests during their stay here. Secondly, the tourism players themselves have to create a code of conduct whereby people indulging in unethical practices must be ostracised by them regardless of any considerations, political or otherwise!