‘Negativity’ by national media dented Kashmir tourism: Mahmood Shah

The old adage that Kashmir is the ‘paradise on earth’ also holds true during present times. Who would not like to visit the ‘paradise on earth’? Unfortunately, political unrests, encounters, bomb explosions, Indian forces’ human rights violations, insurgents, militants, amongst others have put the ‘Paradise’ in news for all the ‘wrong reasons’. The national media, in an appetite to scale commercial gains, usually is blowing these ‘incidents’ out of the proportion which has dented the ‘paradise’ adversely. The negative perceptions being clouded by the media have confronted the tourism industry in the state with multi-faceted challenges. Besides exonerative serenity and breath taking scenic beauty, Jammu and Kashmir is the only state in the country with Sufi circuit, Buddhist circuit and Temple circuit making it the ‘potential pilgrim destination’. The rugged geography and the tough climate have made the territory popular in the world for ‘adventure tourism’. Kashmir Magazine tried to get answers to these pertinent questions hovering around these challenges amongst others confronting the Jammu and Kashmir tourism industry from Director, Department of Tourism, Mahmood Ahmad Shah. Here are the excerpts from the exclusive interview:

The tourism industry in the state is facing several challenges. The big­gest challenge before the industry is to demystify the ‘narratives’ put for­ward by the national media regard­ing the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The national media portrays the state as ‘a terror state’, ‘a militant state’, ‘a stone-pelter state’, etc. In attracting the domestic and international trav­elers and tourists, such narratives act as ‘inhibitors’. Tourism and terrorism does not go together. There is urgen­cy for a counter-narrative to protect the tourism industry of the state. What are your preparations in this regard?

The biggest challenge confront­ing the tourism industry is the neg­ative perceptions. People who want to come here are somehow discour­aged by the constant negativity in the national media. So our biggest chal­lenge is to dilute these negative per­ceptions about the destination. We have to endeavour and set our house in order because every now and then the state is in the news for all the bad things like encounters, bullet-firings, etc. But at the same time some in­cidents are being blown out of the proportion which has dented us a lot in the form of reducing the annual tourist influx. We have been adverse­ly affected by the recent killings of Amarnath yatris in Pahalgam which aggravated the negative perceptions about the state. Unless and until we don’t send a signal that the tourists are safe here, we will not be able in attract­ing the higher tourist influx.

My question was what your prepara­tions to kill this negative perception are. Apart from print and broadcast media, the new media has enormous negative content regarding Kashmir. What are your strategies to tackle this?

There are various strategies to tackle this challenge. First, to get the content writers, bloggers and people from print and electronic media to this place so that they can themselves wit­nesses the ground reality and report accordingly. In this regard, we have already brought fifty odd journalists from different parts of the country to the valley to acclimatize them with the ground reality. Second strategy is that we have to go to the length and breadth of the country, visit the marts, interact with the travel agents and the people and build the positive per­ception about the destination. Third strategy is running advertising cam­paigns in print and electronic media to dilute this negative perception. The fourth strategy of negativity dilution is highlighting the positive aspects re­garding the destination that can be dis­seminated again through mainstream and social media. We have been very aggressive and interactive over social media for last few months. We are us­ing the tourist experience and reviews as an important message to attract the reluctant visitors. We are also request­ing the national media to tap the posi­tive stories and highlight them as well.

The reviews and experience of the tourist who visited the state amidst the net of negativity can be used to counter the ‘negativity’ of national media re­garding the state especially the Kash­mir valley.

We have to do whatever we can to shed this negativity regarding the des­tination. We are trying our level best to highlight the positive stories and no such positive story should get unno­ticed.

The tourism industry has remained confined to the conventional services like parks, cable cars, hotels and trans­portation. What about the exploitation of the huge potential of the state in the form of mountains that can be used for adventure tourism like mountain­eering? The state has the potentials of becoming an international mountain­eering tourism centre.

Jammu and Kashmir is known as the adventure tourism destination in the world. But if we turn the clock back we had Al-Faran incident where six foreigners were kidnapped and later killed. We were unable to even trace their dead bodies that had dented us very adversely. Moreover, when Kash­mir is gripped with militancy for two and a half decade, the mountains are considered unsafe. But gradually we have restarted the mountaineering in the state. We took enthusiasts back to the mountains. Now trekking is going on and the number of trekkers across the country and abroad has been in­creasing at a constant rate. Tarsar-Mar­sar and the adjacent areas are devel­oped for the trekkers. We have taken the local people to trek these moun­tains. In 2015, we climbed Harmukh, kolhai and Sunset peak. We have also started ice-climbing for the first time in the state. So gradually, we have re­juvenated adventure tourism here but the negativity in the national media is primarily responsible for negating the growth.

Higher tourist inflows require huge in­frastructure. Do we have the requisite infrastructure at the first place to accommodate and provide services they demand?

We have the standard infrastruc­ture and services’ delivery capacity that can satisfy million plus tourists a year. If we analyse the tourist arrival data we get about million plus tourist arrivals annually and we have quite comfortable infrastructure and ser­vice delivery capacity for that number. However in cases of some unprece­dented higher inflows of tourists we can accommodate them by setting up temporary camps. Tentative ac­commodation is being encouraged in Sonamarg, Pahalgam and Gulmarg. Moreover, new hotels constructed by the government and private sector have raised the overall bed capacity to accommodate the surplus.

Hut- type accommodation or tem­porary tent accommodation would be more feasible ecologically as well as economically in the tourist-resorts like Drung, Aferwat, Tarsar-Marasar so that tourists can feel the warmth and aura of the serenity.

We have been encouraging the private entrepreneurs to come and in­vest in this sector since past decades. We have succeeded in incentivizing the entrepreneurs and guided them in setting-up tent colonies in Sonamarg, Pahalgam and Gulmarg. Tourists don’t like to go to places where accommo­dation is too far away. So we will con­tinue encouraging and incentivizing the entrepreneurs in developing tent colonies and providing others services.

What about the Jhelum water trans­port that tourism department started recently? Is this a way to decongest the roads in Srinagar city?

Water transport is one of the com­ponents of comprehensive mobility plans. We have started on experiment mode the ‘new mobility mean’ where we run daily cruise from Upstream (Raj bagh) to downstream (Down town). It is a free service and we are running it for one month. If there are takers we will incorporate it into the compre­hensive mobility plans which will help in the road decongestion and minimizing the traffic jams. We have procured number of boats meant for running water and flat water.

So far Department of Tourism has succeed in attracting tourists to sce­nic beauty like Gulmarg, Pahalgam, Sonamarg, etc. What about increas­ing the pilgrim and education tour­ism?

As far as pilgrimage is concerned we receive good number of yatris both in Kashmir as well as in Jammu divisions of the state. These are the niche markets. J&K is the only state where we have Sufi circuit, Buddhist circuit, temple circuit and all these circuits have been promoted by de­veloping special packages catering to the respective circuits.

Films are shot in Kashmir and the viewers are told through dialogues that it’s Shimla. How do you pre­vent this ‘scenic plagiarism’ in films? Moreover, are the producers and di­rectors more enthusiastic to shoot in Kashmir?

That has happened only once and it can’t be the rule. After that many films were shot here and have portrayed Kashmir positively and were big hits. In addition to the Bolly­wood, the filmmakers from different countries have shown their interest to shoot here. For Instance, several Malaysian films were shot here. But the fear psychosis is again looming them back. We have a number of films lined up this year.

Turbulence and terrorism have an inverse relationship. Do you see a drop in tourist influx in the turbulent year from the normal year?

There has been a drop in the tourist arrivals due to the prevailing turbulence in the destination. But we have to do more hard work. We have faced the similar situations in the past too and we had our lows and highs. We both the department and the stakeholders have worked hard and tourist traffic has esca­lated again. We are employing a number of strategies to increase the tourist traffic. Recently, we sponsored our travel agents to go to Thailand and conduct a road show. This year we have received record Thai tourists. Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and other South East Asian countries comprise a poten­tial market for us and we are capi­talizing on that.

Tourists litter at the health resorts. The department may have not the requisite manpower to de-litter the areas on fast track mode. Do you think there is need of ‘behaviour Campaigns’?

We have staff that caters to the sanitation of the health resorts. But when the tourist influx is higher than the carrying capacity it is very dif­ficult to maintain the hygiene and sanitation of higher standards. Ad­vertisements may also not help in changing the behaviour of people. It is the responsibility of every per­son who visits these resorts to keep them clean. Use dustbins instead of littering here and there. We are in­stalling bio-digester, disintegrators, and composters soon in the health resorts to keep them clean.

Kashmir Magazine / Kashmir Today