The ‘Heaven on Earth’ may be limping back to normalcy but tourism stakeholders in Jammu & Kashmir – still recovering from the ravages of the 2014 floods, coupled with the underlying fear of militancy – are looking to the state government to give the industry the direction and push it needs.
While moving around Srinagar, one can still see roads being re-built and clean-up operations being undertaken in full swing. All this, amid the presence of Army and paramilitary troops patrolling the streets and localities. Many hotels in the state capital, which went under water for many days during last year’s devastating floods, are yet to pick up occupancies.
The iconic Dal Lake may still be the crowd-puller but it has lost some of its pristine beauty due to the mushrooming of houseboats. The well-known floating vegetable markets, which were a major tourist attraction earlier, are also somewhat losing their sheen due the higher levels of water which have seeped into the vegetable patches, making them unsuitable for cultivation.
Hoteliers in the nearby tourist haven, Gulmarg, are also reportedly running to less than expected occupancies, even during the peak season.
Now, in a bid to boost the fortunes of the tourism industry, the Jammu & Kashmir directorate of tourism opened its first ‘Travel Mart’ since 1988 at the Sher-I-Kashmir International Convention Centre (SKICC) in Srinagar recently. The three-day Travel Mart saw participation from international buyers from 11 countries including Thailand, Korea, Italy, Malaysia and the UK, among others.
Speaking at the opening ceremony, Jammu & Kashmir CM Mufti Mohammad Sayeed said, “It is my vision to make Kashmir an all-season destination. The floods had devastated the Valley and building back the infrastructure is a time-consuming process. I am happy that the travel trade in cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Ahmedabad are trying very hard and supporting us in changing the perception of Kashmir as an unsafe destination. There should be no ‘off season’ for this beautiful state.”
Sayeed added: “We can do this by offering adventure tourism, mountaineering and golf tourism as weekend packages for domestic tourists. We want to introduce skiing not just in Gulmarg, but also at Pahalgam and Sonmarg. We need to make cycling tracks and offer more such activities than just offer gardens and snow.”
Shailendra Kumar, commissioner secretary, tourism, Jammu & Kashmir government, said that the aim was to increase tourist arrivals into Kashmir from the current 20 lakh to 80 lakh visitors and in Jammu from 1.10 lakh to 1.5 crore. “It is imperative to focus on repeat tourists. For this, we will roll out a ‘Kashmir Calling’ campaign soon. Our talks with the film industry are finally bearing fruit with the Salman Khan movie, Bajrang Bhaijaan, being shot in the Valley. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra has also shown his intent to film his next movie featuring Anil Kapoor’ s son here,” said Kumar. Citing the example of Japan, Kumar said: “We need to make the destination affordable. We need to get out of the ‘expensive’ image tag.” Affordable connectivity is another issue. The one-hour flight from Delhi to Srinagar commands one of the world’s most expensive airfares.
At the Travel Mart, state CM Sayeed also suggested the formation of houseboat clusters so as to reduce pollutants in Dal Lake. He added that an international yoga centre is being built at Patnitop and water sports will also be given a boost. Sayeed was also keen on organising a Davos-type tourism conclave in the state where the corporate sector from all across the country and industry stakeholders can convene together with the Prime Minister too attending it. He also hinted at starting a helicopter service for high-spending golf tourists to Pahalgam and also an integrated theme park on the lines of Sentosa in Singapore.
But this again must be seen against its impact on the eco-sensitivity of the region. During the business session on ‘Sustainable Tourism – A Way Forward’, Farooq A Shah, director, tourism Kashmir, and managing director, Jammu & Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation (JKTDC), said, “We must avoid creating concrete jungles. We are formulating a tourism policy banning polythene bags in the state, recycling waste in hotels and the use of non-polluting fuels like CNG. The government will form enforcement squads to implement these rules and also
focus on disaster management. We will promote
activities like trekking which do not affect the environment. We will also work on a complete circuit for heritage tourism.”
Faiz Bakshi, joint secretary general, Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), offered, “Growth can be sustained only if we sustain the ecology of the area. Tourism is all about having respect for the carrying capacity of that destination. The Jammu & Kashmir government should use scientific methods to determine the carrying capacity of each tourist region. Also, tourism should benefit the remotest communities. We have 25,000 registered pony riders and 4,600 registered shikara owners (supporting two families per shikara). They should get the benefits. This is what sustainable tourism is all about.”
The state also has a dearth of five-star properties, The Lalit and Vivanta by Taj being among the few. In Gulmarg, the Khyber Himalayan Resort & Spa is quite popular. While JKTDC is planning new resorts at Doodhpatri and Bungus Valley, it is still not enough to offer tourists a wide platter of accommodation options. At the Travel Mart, this reporter learnt that Radisson Blu will be foraying into Jammu & Kashmir with two properties set to open in 2016. The properties are coming up in Srinagar and Tangmarg, which is en route to Gulmarg, and are being developed by the local MTC Group that owns the Grand Mumtaz and Mumtaz Towers in Srinagar.