Kashmir has been known through ages as a Paradise on Earth. In fact, the Mughal time couplet, “If there is a Paradise on Earth, it is here, it is here, and it is here!” has always been quoted to promote tourism to Kashmir. There are no two opinions about the potential for every kind of Tourism in Kashmir. Both the leisure and adventure Tourism have extensive possibilities in every season. Generally people, especially politicians have been claiming Tourism to be the back bone of Kashmir’s economy. That is not a fact. As per economic statics Tourism does not constitute more than 7% of the Gross Domestic Product of Kashmir’s economy. Agriculture through ages has been the real backbone of the economy. Unfortunately, after 1953 with the dethroning of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah who had been trying to make Kashmir self-sufficient in many respects, the agricultural economy got gradually shattered due to the subsidized food grains imported from outside the state. Local production in every field declined and the valley became totally dependent on imports from outside the state.
The growth of mass tourism made people reorient their occupations and the entire effort was spent on building tourism infrastructure. In spite of that, the Tourism remained an addition to the economy and never became its backbone. Being a service oriented industry; it created a large number of jobs on seasonal basis as in the earlier times tourism had remained confined to summer only. Because of the import of most of the inputs for the industry it did not really have a multiplier effect on the economy. Additionally, the mass tourism which grew was more of a budgeted nature than high end variety. As already pointed out, the Tourism potential of Kashmir in every respect whether leisure tourism or adventure tourism, is unique and virtually unlimited. If properly exploited and above everything else, if peace prevails, Tourism can be main economic activity. The examples are Austria and Switzerland in Europe where the main economic activity is Tourism. But for that the primary consideration is “Peace”! At the moment “Peace” is unfortunately missing. Thus, for the present Tourism is advisable to be considered an additional economic activity and not the backbone of the economy.
Again, we have to be selective. Majority of leisure tourists will avoid a disturbed area. However, people participating in adventure like Skiing, mountaineering, trekking, Rafting and so on do not mind the situation. Apart from these being hazardous activities, the adventure tourists do not usually go to populated areas but to the wilderness. This winter Gulmarg remained full of skiers throughout the season unmindful of the situation in the rest of the valley. Also in summer many trekkers go to different areas away from the main population centres. Similarly, the rafters run down wild streams. We need to concentrate on this sector of tourism till complete peace returns to the valley. This will keep our destination in circulation throughout the tourism circuit.
In the field of promotion, we need to hold small important events in Kashmir connected with various activities and if possible, telecast these live through some important media channels. That is a better way of countering the negative image created by some electronic channels bent upon destroying Kashmir’s friendly tourist image. It is not necessary to hold musical events at a huge cost. The ideal would be to hold some small conferences, meetings and competitions in various adventure activities. One can get international participation in these small events to be telecast live.
Another important requirement is to first identify the potential markets and target these. It has been observed that in the worst of the times, especially, the nineties of the last century when the domestic market completely dried up, there were continuous tourist groups coming to the valley from South East Asia like Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia and so on. Recently, a group of Kashmiri travel agents visited some places in South East Asia. Also there is a good market for Kashmir in Middle East. Targeted promotional tours need to be conducted by the Department of Tourism with some local travel agents specializing in these areas as co-opted members. As part of promotion, the department should invite travel media especially the National Geographic Traveler, Conde Nast Traveler, Wanderlust, Today’s Traveler and similar others on FAM tours to Kashmir.
Another worthwhile area is to promote tours to Ladakh through valley with just a couple of days stop-over here. That was the initial Ladakh Travel Itinerary after its opening in 1974. It is also possible to plan Ladakh trips by air with a stopover in Srinagar on way in. The tourists can then fly out of Ladakh to Delhi. A combination of Adventure and Culture Tourism with Ladakh and valley has been in existence earlier also. This needs to be promoted. There are other special interest tours which can be easily conducted in the present situation. The State Tourism Organisation needs to be geared up accordingly. They must adopt the newer and presently suitable ways of promoting tourism. They will also have to defer the proposals of setting newer and newer Tourism Authorities as part of the routine planning. They need to concentrate on the existing destinations and the thrust should be on special interest tourism especially the adventure activities.
Let me end by giving a quote of Abdul Hafiz Ali from his article in Morocco World Times dated April 6, 2019, titled, “Traveling Kashmir : Beauty Amid the Chaos”. “Kashmir is a veritable paradise on Earth, nestled between the Himalayan Mountains. Before my travels, I was warned of the many risks and dangers associated with traveling through the area. Thankfully, I ignored these warnings and ended up spending an incredible month in beautiful Kashmir”.