Past Sunday when Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the road tunnel on the Srinagar-Jammu national highway, he flagged tourism as the priority area while conveniently choosing not to talk much about the real challenges facing Kashmir. Since then the ruling dispensation here has once again started talking about tourism development as the panacea to all ills plaguing the society. No wonder that tourism has since featured so prominently in the PDP’s electioneering too.
Notwithstanding that Kashmir has a huge potential as far as tourism is concerned and if harnessed properly this sector could certainly change the economic profile of the entire state, however, it is also a reality that tourism cannot sustain itself as long as political turmoil continues here. So if the government is really interested in attracting more and more tourists to Kashmir, it cannot go on brushing the underlying causes of political conflict here under the proverbial carpet. This is amply evidenced by the fact that despite record number of tourist arrivals during past few years, Kashmir still is and will remain a controversial place to visit, even under the best of circumstances. Not only does a tourist lose his or her health insurance while travelling to what is still deemed to be a disturbed area, but frequent strikes and sometimes curfews also present huge inconveniences to unsuspecting visitors. And as if the turbulent politics of the place was not enough, the inadequate and often overprized tourism infrastructure here is also a big disappointment, besides being an indicator of the failure of the tourism industry to put their money where their mouth is.
Given this scenario, one cannot help but wonder if we have become terribly unrealistic about what we have to offer and, in the process, have priced ourselves out of the market. Truth is that there are many “paradises” elsewhere and most are not confronted with the same problematic potential instability. Many of these other destinations are also priced much more reasonably and offer a variety of products for every income group. One has to wonder whether short-term thinking is getting the better of an industry that is counted as an answer to many of Kashmir’s pressing problems.
Take the example of the much touted policy of encouraging private players to offer accommodations under a bed & breakfast scheme. Isn’t it true that it has mostly resulted in more congested neighbourhoods and unregulated growth in establishments that do not compare favourably in quality and pricing to those offered in other states. Regardless of what we might have been told, skiing at Gulmarg is no longer such an inexpensive alternative to resorts in the West, with costs for lodging skyrocketing and gondola rides approaching prices charged abroad. Many skiers who used to come to Gulmarg for the entire skiing season are no longer able to pay for the experience of a long-term stay. Inconveniences caused by poor service and lack of other infrastructure are no longer acceptable when prices are similar to those charged in places where everything works. If charged to the hilt, then a visitor has to have all the other basics like sanitation, availability of water and electricity, timely opening of lifts and gondolas, and access to evening entertainment. But if all these things can’t be ensured, then the logical and rational way to go about it is to price our packages reasonably. There are people who are willing to forego some of these things in exchange for a reasonable package deal. But even this minimum is not being done here.
Then there is yet another problem – that of unplanned and unregulated growth of so-called tourism infrastructure at the most eco-fragile zones. Places previously famous for their scenic beauty have been turned into concrete jungles that no longer attract those looking for nature and solitude. Noise and air pollution are approaching and sometimes superseding those in nearby mountain states or other destinations. Yet, these places offer more affordable vacations despite no worries about political stability and lack of security concerns. If people opt for a trip to Southeast Asia because the cost of a stay is more reasonable and hassle-free, shouldn’t we adjust to that reality and change our expectations of what is sustainable in Kashmir under current conditions? According to Aristotle, knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom. Isn’t it time to introspect and stop blaming others?