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.