There has been news that U.K. has lifted the adverse travel advisory to its nationals regarding visiting J & K. However, in fact, the adverse advice has been modified and not completely lifted. The actual changed advice reads, “We advise against all travel to Jammu and Kashmir with the exception of the cities of Jammu and Srinagar, travel between these two cities on the Jammu-Srinagar highway and the region of Ladakh”.The advice further says,“In some areas terrorist incidents are frequent, especially Jammu and Kashmir (excluding Ladakh) and the north east”.This leaves most of the trekking and climbing areas of the valley and Jammu and the ski resort of Gulmarg still forbidden for U.K. nationals. The region of Ladakh was always kept open for travel by all the countries. The adverse advice was mainly against Kashmir valley and some parts of Jammu.The British as usual are very circumspect and choosy in using words. In any case, the twin cities of Jammu and Srinagar are now allowed to be visited by U.K. nationals. This is not a mean achievement. It is apparent that the persistent efforts of the Tourism Officials, Travel Industry members led by the Tourism Minister have compelled the British to review their advice. The final say has been by the staff of the British High Commission in New Delhi who had been invited by the J & K Tourism Department to visit Kashmir last year. The continuous attendance of the Tourism Officials along with contingents of travel agents in the famous World Travel Mart in London has also had its impact.
However, before we become jubilant about the renewal of western tourist traffic to Kashmir, we need to analyse the advice as well as the type of traffic we were getting. The maximum number of foreign tourists that visited Kashmir before the eruption of turmoil was 67,000 in 1988-89. The bulk of the traffic was of two categories. One was the retired American and other western folks going round the world in large groups of 100 to 150. They used to stay on luxury houseboats and went for lot of shopping for their children back home. The other was the high end trekkers in groups being handled by some international agencies. Kashmir provides the best Alpine style trekking through lush green forests, meadows, and high altitude lakes. Keeping in view the difficulties of insurance and the scary image of Kashmir painted by the media, it is doubtful if the retired category of peace loving people will return in large groups to Kashmir. However, there is a very good possibility of high end trekkers coming back. The adventure loving trekkers were not scared of the situation but were not allowed to go trekking in the Kashmir Mountains after the 1995 kidnapping. World Expeditions of the Australian travel agent Garry Weare continued in spite of tremendous difficulties. In the end he too had to give up. In fact, a large number of principal agents and their outfitters shifted their operations from Kashmir to Nepal. The modified advisory has still kept trekking in the no go zone. This needs to be changed if large foreign traffic is really envisaged.
Apart from the adverse travel advisory, the other most important factor discouraging foreign travel to Kashmir has been its inaccessibility to International Air Routes. In spite of the fact that the Srinagar Airport is called the International Airport, it has no international connection. The inauguration of the so called International Airport has been a joke played on Kashmiris by no less a person than the Madam Sonia Gandhi! The sole weekly international cattle flight to Dubai was discontinued hardly after few months. To visit Kashmir foreigners from all over the world have to pay an add-on fare from Delhi to Srinagar and back. 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 the world could come and go easily and see for themselves the present safe travel situation. Another factor is the missing world standard infrastructure especially the five star category accommodation and transport. Unless we do something about it, the high end traveller will avoid Kashmir whether there is an adverse advice or not!
While being on the subject of travel advisories, here it may be mentioned that there are good possibilities of generating traffic from the areas and countries which have never issued any adverse travel advisories regarding Kashmir to their nationals. These include the South East Asia, Middle East and the Central Asia. In fact, the only foreign travellers that have continued to come here in the worst possible law and order situation are from the South East Asian countries. Incidentally, all the three short haul regions are very close by air from Srinagar and one could think of international flights from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Dubai, Kuwait, Bahrain, Doha, Tashkent, Almaty, and so on. There could be even two way traffic both in tourism and trade. Another point regarding high end tourism is why one should look at the foreigners only in this regard. Within India there are millions of high end tourists who spend more than the foreigners. In fact, the number of Indians now travelling abroad for pleasure holidays to Europe, America, Australia, and South East Asia is in the range of 25 million! Thus, we have to go way beyond the travel advisories if we really want to attract the high end travellers both foreign and domestic. Mere modification of the British Foreign Office advice which in any case is mostly biased will not do!