Dr. Simrit Kahlon
In Kashmir, the advent of the much awaited summer tourism season is heralded with the opening of the famous Tulip garden, Siraj Bagh, on the foothills of the Zabarwan Mountains in Srinagar. In 2021, when the garden opened, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had tweeted “Whenever you get the opportunity, do visit Jammu and Kashmir and witness the scenic Tulip festival. In addition to the Tulips, you will experience the warm hospitality of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.” This year, while opening the garden, J&K Chief Secretary Dr. Arun Kumar Mehta stated that the state administration expects heavy tourist influx in 2022.
There is enough reason to support his optimism since, as per reports, Kashmir is witnessing a tourist footfall in excess of 5000 daily with the number of visitors in March standing at 1.60 lakh. On the streets vehicles holding registration numbers from other parts of the country are seen in large numbers, these people are visiting not only for a holiday but even to explore business opportunities that have come by due to the opening of the economy.
The Dal Boulevard is milling with people out for early morning walks. The “insecure” hour had become a thing of the past. Shikarawalas who used to twiddle their thumbs for lack of work are now earning up to sixty thousand rupees in a month. Houseboats and hotels which had, for years, not let out a room for more than Rs. 1000/- a night are getting thrice as much. Handicraft retailers are doing brisk business. The situation has an element of positivity that is very heartening indeed.
There are several reasons behind this influx of tourists, the main being a normalised security situation that has come by due to the unrelenting efforts towards elimination of the scourge of terrorism by the security forces led by the Indian Army and the complete support of the people in this direction. The Government of the Union Territory has put in great effort to upgrade the infrastructure and also sell Kashmir as a viable and preferred tourist destination.
A message has gone out that Kashmir is now safe for holidaying and doing business. The tour and travel professionals are all double vaccinated against COVID and carry certificates to that effect. The Srinagar airport can easily accommodate up to 100 flights in a single day and the road journey from Jammu is exciting due to the beautiful road and the lovely landscape along the route. Visits to the exotic places like Gulmarg, Sonmarg etc and stay in the capital city of Srinagar is now a very pleasant experience indeed.
Those who are revisiting Kashmir after a few years are pleasantly surprised at the vibrant environment that is prevalent there. Security is at a high threshold even as visible deployment has been reduced considerably, all areas are well covered by foolproof security grids. The streets are bustling with activity with no indication of stress due to the shadow of the gun that was looming in earlier times. Markets and commercial places remain open till late in the evening.
Tulip Garden in Kashmir
There are, however, certain areas that need special attention in order to meet the increasing influx of tourists. Infrastructure continues to be a weak point in the chain of the development process. While the main roads are well laid the peripherals are in a state of neglect. It is known that every year, heavy snow takes a toll on the roads, however, some solution to the problem needs to be found. There is an issue of electricity supply and other modern amenities, while the electricity situation has improved it is nowhere near the desired level that tourists expect in a good holiday location.
Lack of infrastructure is always a deterrent to visitors, the sooner this situation is rectified the better. A tense security situation is no longer an excuse to stall movement in this direction, It is imperative for Kashmir to witness a considerable facelift in case the tourist and business potential is to be fully exploited.
The government and the people must realise that Kashmir has to compete with other tourist destinations like Himachal Pradesh that have made tremendous progress over time. The tourist brochures of Himachal Pradesh run into volumes while Kashmir has, as yet, not been able to grow out of its Srinagar-Pahalgam-Gulmarg-Sonmarg circuit, there is an improvement in adventure sports, meditation centres etc but this too needs to be further evolved since facilities obtainable in other destinations are much better. Tourism requires innovation and that seems to be lacking.
Here the people also need to apply themselves, they need to grow out of dependence upon the government and take up the challenge personally. It is the people, especially the youth, who have the potential to bring in the required vibrancy that can convert Kashmir into the most preferred tourist and business destination.
There are some Kashmiri’s who wish to project Kashmir as unsafe and underdeveloped. This is in pursuance of an inimical foreign agenda and is paid propaganda. The people should desist from falling into a trap being set by foreign sponsored propagandists to drive a wedge between them, the security forces and the government. They should, instead, put in all effort towards progressive thought and action.
This is the time for all genuine stakeholders who have the good of Kashmir in mind to join hands in isolating those who have inimical designs. This is the time to be mature and statesmanlike and work towards consolidating the gains accrued as a result of diligent hard work and great sacrifice. J&K demands constructive contribution and not opportunism. Nothing can be gained by reliving a traumatised past in a manner that overshadows a bright future. It is time to look ahead and to work for a bright future, the incoming tourist season is a great opportunity to move in the desired direction.
(Simrit Kahlon is an academician and a columnist)