Even as the J&K Tourism department grapples with allegations of mismanagement of a recent Autumn Fest familiarisation tour as a result of which heads have rolled, one thing remains unchanged - Kashmir’s eternal beauty. As one Kashmiri hotelier said, Paradise needs no marketing. What IS needed to bring in the wary tourist to this Paradise, is to put infrastructure in place and garner the political will to create awareness that it is a safe destination as any in India
There are no two words about it. Kashmir, or as a famous poet described it – ‘Jannat’ (Paradise) – is a must-see destination on every traveller’s bucket list. So why are tourists staying away from it? Because of the general perception that Kashmir is not safe for tourists. In a bid to change that perception, J&K Tourism recently invited travel agents, media and travel bloggers to come and experience the tourism products in the state and help revive its once thriving tourism industry.
Speaking at the opening ceremony of the Kashmir Autumn Festival 2018, Rigzin Samphel, tourism secretary, Jammu & Kashmir said that the figures were encouraging. “J&K has seen a 45 per cent increase in foreign tourist arrivals in 2017 and we want more and more tourists to come. For that we want the industry stakeholders, media and influencers like travel bloggers to convey the message to people outside the state that it is perfectly safe to visit us. Perception is something we are working on. The Valley has endless list of beautiful places. Doodhpatri, Gurez are all new destinations that can compete with Gulmarg. In fact, in J&K destinations compete among themselves. We are organising this meeting in the off season to show that in Kashmir there is no off season – it is an all seasons destination,” he said.
Moral responsibility of industry stakeholders
Samphel said that all industry stakeholders had a moral responsibility not only to talk about Kashmir, but also to visit it. “You all have a stake in the tourism of this state. You all are ambassadors of J&K Tourism. We must work together to increase tourist arrivals into the state. A coordinated effort is needed so that we can hope to have a better year. Please project a positive image of Kashmir, as a safe destination like any other place in India,” he urged.
Governor of J&K Satya Pal Malik was the chief guest at the event. Malik said, “Today, I walked the broadwalk adjacent to Dal Lake all on my own, with no security. So if I can do it, so can any tourist. People die everywhere, in Patna more people die than in Kashmir. We want to give our youth a normal life. We plan to start coffee shops, a cinema etc, so that they have some source of entertainment. We are also trying to get cricket events like IPL here.” Be it cricket or golf, organising such events will help to send a loud and clear message that Kashmir is a safe destination to visit and fans can come and enjoy themselves as tourists and sports lovers.
Golfing has long been one of the main attractions of the Kashmir valley in the summers. The Lidder Valley Golf Course in Pahalgam is a 18 hole international standard golf course which opened in 2011. It was accessible only to members but will soon be open to the public for an entry fee. Another golf course at Gulmarg situated at an altitude of 2,650 m, is the highest green golf course anywhere in the world. The layout of the course too is strikingly different from most golf courses – the land slopes and inclines along the complete area of the course, which has a par of 72. The historic Gulmarg Golf Club was started in 1911 by the British who used the place as a holiday resort. The origin of Gulmarg as the Golfing Mecca of India goes back to the late 19th century when a 6-hole course was made in 1890-91 by Colonel Neville Chamberlain – the greens were known as browns in those days. The first Golf championship was played at Gulmarg in 1922. The Nedou’s Cup was introduced in 1929. Gulmarg is also home to the Gondola, one of the highest ropeways in the world, drawing nearly 4,000 visitors each day.
Recently, an amount of INR 2000 crore was earmarked for the development of tourism infrastructure at various destinations in the Jammu and Kashmir under the Prime Minister’s Development Plan (PMDP) projects. According to reports, the Travel Agents Society of Kashmir (TASK) has demanded upgradation of public infrastructure at tourism resorts and heritage sites besides the launch of laser show at Dal Lake and sound and light show at Shalimar Garden.
TASK has also apprised the tourism secretary of airport immigration problems and hassles in getting airport passes for bonafide tour operators. It has also demanded the classification of hotels and houseboats as per the criteria laid down in the Tourist Trade Act besides fixing their tariffs. TASK has also expressed dismay over the dilapidated condition of roads leading to various tourist destinations like Yusmarg, Gurez, Doodhpathri and Toshimaidan.
Bringing in the numbers
Raja Rani Travels has long promoted Kashmir even during the days of militancy. Vishvajeet Patil, director, Raja Rani Travels who was one of the delegates on the FAM tour said, “The potential is tremendous. Time and again there have been such efforts like this FAM tour for promoting the Autumn Fest and the J&K Tourism department has been very proactive in taking up such initiatives in getting travel agents and media to try and promote tourism in the Valley. But unfortunately when just prior to the start of the season there have been incidents which have complete washout effect on the tourist flow in terms of the Burhanwali killing or the floods etc. These incidents have happened at strategic times when the rest of the country is planning to visit Kashmir. Kashmir has always been the number one destination of choice for Indians the world over and I think it is time that we decide what we can do for Kashmir, not what Kashmir can do for us. There is a lot of inflow of tourists from Malaysia, Indonesia and China. As for the Europeans and Americans, their numbers are down because they follow travel advisories and this has an impact. But flow from the Far East has really increased.”
He also mentioned that at one time Kashmir was the most easily connected hillstation with direct connectivity from Delhi and Mumbai but now with less tourist inflow, direct flights have stopped and connectivity is via Delhi or Jammu, so it takes longer to reach Kashmir.
Commenting on MICE movements to Kashmir, he added, “We have tried to promote all segments but it has been mostly leisure. However, corporates need to come here in big numbers because this helps tide over the off season lean times. Kashmir has shown interest in getting corporates. Slowly international hotel brands are coming in and Kashmir has lots of hotels of good quality. However, in terms infrastructure a lot needs to be done such as toilet facilities, roadside amenities and even how the shikara owners or pony owners haggle with tourists over the price of rides which is very unprofessional. There has to be a proper system and though there are already fixed government rates, what is important is that this should be implemented.”
Deepak Prasad, team leader – products and contracting, Bharat Deko, Cox & Kings believed that the coming season will be fruitful because media has been supportive of Kashmir. “Cox & Kings had also supported Kashmir in Jan-Feb this year – when any customer booked a J&K package with us, we gave him a complimentary one way air ticket. We got very good response for this initiative – more than 30 to 40 bookings. Presently, we are offering a complimentary GST offer on all J&K packages,” he informed. Commenting on arrivals from the Southern states, he said, “The best clients are from the South as they are very keen and adventurous. They want a fixed itinerary and they are very particular about their accommodation. And rightly so – if you want to experience the beauty of Kashmir, you must stay in a four-star or five-star category hotel with Valley facing views,” he opined.
Another avid Kashmir promoter since pre independence has been Kesari Tours started by Kesari Patil. Pramod Dalvi, vice president – PR, Kesari Tours was also part of the FAM tour. He said, “Kesari has always been one of the leading tour operators selling Kashmir. In 2016, we sent around 17,000 visitors here. But in 2017, terrorism brought this number down to 13,000. We had then suggested to the tourism department to issue a letter saying that it is safe to visit Kashmir. We would keep this letter in all Kesari branches across India so that if visitors are wary of going to Kashmir, we can show them this letter as assurance. But sadly, it never happened.”
He also pointed out that media has an important role to play in changing the perception of Kashmir. “If anything happens in a small place like Uri, they say Kashmir is not safe. Floods happen everywhere in Kerala and even in Florida. Earthquake, floods etc are not in our control. But such manmade incidents can and should be controlled. Everything is blown out of proportion. We can tell them it is safe but if they see in the papers or TV, they want to cancel. I have suggested to at least have some security like a discrete liasion officer similar to an air marshal on flights to accompany tourist groups to make them feel secure.”
But the good news is that many things have changed for the better in Paradise. It is easier to get a prepaid phone connection now with Aadhar cards and the time consuming baggage identifying process at the Srinagar airport has also been stopped. Most importantly, the smiles and warm hospitality of the people of this land has remained the same. At least for them, a visit to this Paradise is worth the while.