In a recently concluded Conclave on Tourism, a travel agent observed that the entry to the city of Srinagar is quite smooth for the tourists coming by air. However, their exit from the same airport is a nightmare!
From the aircraft, the dome shaped structures of the so called International Airport seem quite impressive. The facilities inside are also reasonable though not up to international aviation standards. There are only two aerobridges even though there is provision for four. Even these two bridges are not sometimes used and the passengers have to walk in the falling rain. There have been some complaints about the hygiene of bath rooms, presence of the birds and cats inside the building, shortage of the conveyor belts for baggage during peak hours and so on. The virtual traffic jam at the airport is caused by clubbing of almost a dozen flights in the peak hour which sends airport facilities into a spin. One would not mind these deficiencies as there are no international flights and for all practical purposes it is a domestic airport. For the people who have been familiar with the air travel to Kashmir it is a dramatic change from the wooden sheds of the old airport of sixties or so when a Dakota used to land here! However, the most annoying thing in the present set up is the procedure for security clearance right from the first entry about a kilometre short of the terminal building for the departing passengers. The incoming passengers have only one hiccup and that is for foreign tourists who have to register again even after having completed all immigration formalities at the port of entry into India at Delhi or Mumbai.
The second immigration formality is prevalent only at airports in J & K. No other domestic airports in other states have any such requirement. This procedure totally negates the contention that Kashmir is an integral part of the Indian Union. Most of the foreigners get the impression that they are landing in some other country or in a protected/restricted zone. This double immigration is not backed by any law including the Foreigners Act which governs the entry and movement of foreigners in the entire country. It is probably being done under the orders of the local interior ministry to keep track of foreigners entering Kashmir. Normally, under law all residential tourist places such as hotels, guest houses, and house-boats have to maintain registers for guests staying with them. They have also to fill up a form “C” to be given to Foreigners’ Registration Office so that they are able to keep track of foreign visitors. If this procedure is strictly maintained, there is no need of additional registration at the airport. In fact, during the tenure of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah in 1975, the airport registration practice for foreigners was discontinued.
The practice got re-introduced after the onset of militancy as the government wanted to keep a tag on the foreign journalists and diplomats visiting Kashmir. At one time the practice of issuing disembarkation cards inside the aircraft was also introduced but this too was discontinued after sometime. One interesting fact about this practice is that the forms to be filled up by the foreigners at Srinagar airport are more detailed and elaborate than the immigration cards given at the international airports! These forms even ask a traveller about the procedure of his booking of a tour even in his home country which seems totally irrelevant. In any case, one could put up with this additional burden but the main complaint is about one’s exit from Kashmir.
In regard to airport security, the most elaborate but really annoying security procedure is supposed to be at the US airports because of 9/11. However, the Srinagar airport security even surpasses that! Srinagar Airport is probably unique in the sense that complete security check of the baggage as well as passengers is carried out on the road leading to the terminal building almost one kilometre short of it! This pre-airport check is a real bother. The usual security procedure which is everywhere followed before entering the airport terminal and boarding the aircraft in different airports in the country and abroad is replicated even before reaching the terminal. The annoying part is the wait for the check. Because of the rush of passengers there are mile long queues of vehicles and sometimes people have to wait in their cars for an hour or so. No doubt this pre-airport check has been necessitated by the attempted storming of the airport by armed persons some years back yet there is need to streamline the procedure to prevent harassment to outgoing passengers. It is reported that shortly vehicle scanners are being deployed at this point which would eliminate disembarking of passengers for individual personal search and scanning of their baggage.
Tourism has been a very hot topic of discussion in the recent past. While the government claims arrival of over a million tourists yet many people point out that the real high end tourism is shying away from Kashmir. Apart from the lack of infrastructure of international standards, the other most important handicap has been the treatment of tourists both in the resorts and at the security check points especially the exit through Srinagar airport. The first and business class travellers are not ready to go through all the hassles and want a smooth passage everywhere. It is because of this that at almost all international airports the first and business class travellers have separate check in and security clearance areas. One needs to bear in mind the fact that adverse publicity by word of mouth is very damaging for a destination. A single dissatisfied tourist can negate all the million dollar publicity undertaken by the tourism department. Thus to ensure repeat tourism and that too from the high end side, both the entry and exit of these tourists has to be streamlined and made smooth and totally hassle-free! The sooner it is done, the better.