Perception plays spoilsport to Kashmir tourism: Naeem Akhtar, state Education Minister

Naeem Akhtar, state Education Minister

In Srinagar recently, TourismFirst met with Naeem Akhtar, PDP spokesperson and presently Minister for Education in the state government. He was widely seen as the ideal choice for the tourism portfolio which the Chief Minister decided to keep to himself for good reason. The minister remains deeply interested and committed to tourism matters. Following are the excerpts from this interview:

Your association and passion has been tourism, how are you seeing the process of recovery of the tourism process in the state?

Local entrepreneurship has done a wonderful job in spite of having faced almost every time an uncertain prospect on account of militancy, or law and order, and now this flood. The local tourism fraternity has really put in a lot of effort and money and tried always to be on the forefront and that is a very positive thing. But as I said, the perceptions about Kashmir are very hard to beat. There has been this lingering fear of militancy out of which we have not come out, unfortunately. If you consider there have been very deadly attacks in West Asia, Egypt, Iraq, Turkey on tourists but here in J&K there are hardly any attacks on tourists. Apart from a few incidents, it has been a very safe journey for tourists. But unfortunately while Egypt attracts in spite of the attacks, it attract foreign tourists, here our own country, which is the main contributor to the tourism sector here ………………

No, tell me for the actual local people, how much does their life depend on tourism?

If you go by the tables, it is just contributing 7% GDP while there are other areas which contribute much more. But having said this is not to trivialize its importance, as its penetration is more marked in everyday lives. This is an area of immense potential. We have not actually tapped even 10% of what we could do. We still do not have many 5 star hotels that could have high spending category of tourists come here. They are still not coming. The Chief Minister has this vision of diversification, in the Indian context, of making Gulmarg the Indian version of the annual Davos summit.  More like  our own corporate jamboree, in the winter, but how far are we ready for this yet, is another question. We are still not ready for that but smaller beginnings can surely begin. But we have to make a beginning so that investments start coming.

As you said, both you and this government are 75 days old, so I think you have done a tremendous job in the tourism sector in only 75days. Even this tourism mart, to my mind is a very big stepping stone as a big familiarization tour to show 200 agents what is the ground reality and what is the perception.

It is our misfortune that we are not coming out of this perception. You see these television programmes with some kind of a flag being shown on the streets, there are over 2,000 cancellations that same day!

You mentioned an idea ‘Friends of Kashmir’club, I had mooted this plan at the Gulmarg tourism conclave but it got lost because ideally some kind of non-governmental ………

Government input is generally seen as a command, but what comes from the ground level, from the business fraternity and the industry that has more credibility and more acceptability. It then becomes easy for the government to ride on it. Because even if there was dissenting voices, within the industry, even they reconcile through this process, as they enjoy greater credibility between themselves.

It is often being said that tourism needs to be sustainable. There are also voices that suggest that tourism can actually be given a more positive orientation. Simply, how can tourism be the saviour for heritage?

It will be. Once you explore these built up heritage properties, once you make them remunerate you, they are saved. Similarly, the natural and scenic beauty, the natural assets, once you offer somebody who indulges in timber smuggling, they are getting pittance, plus the fear of smuggling and police. If you open that area to tourism, provide those same people with employment which is more remunerative than felling a tree and risking jail, it is always better to give an alternative.

Is there some short cut available? We have lost almost two decades in which development work could have got done. How can a government agency become a fast track way improving infrastructure?

We had started area specific tourism development authorities and then we made 22 of them. Unfortunately after that there was less patronage and it became free for all. So whoever had some vested interest of his own developed some bits. There are such scenic spots like Kokernag, delightful little nuggets, and nothing has been done around them. We have not been able to follow it up. Our administrative structure is already in place.

Can a state government agency fast track the development process, bring in private partners and give a strong orientation to infrastructure. Is there a possibility of a joint venture?

We made a beginning. Such as Hari Niwas, we are giving it out to. The tenders are already out.

What about Centaur?

We are in talks. It is high on our agenda. Mufti Sahb has had talks with central government agencies on this subject. But there are also many of our own properties that are lying idle. We want to revitalise them, either by privatisation or through joint ventures. We are also looking at golf resorts in private partnership. We have a beautiful club coming up, in Pahalgam with rooms to stay and a convention facility. This should be ready by September. This can give Pahalgam 12 month business and build as a corporate hub.

Mufti Saab has repeatedly emphasized the importance of MICE tourism ………..

This was the boost behind this Pahalgam golf club with MICE facility keeping in mind the sustainability of such interventions. In Gulmarg, The Khyber has a very good convention facility.

In the Gulmarg Conclave, the Secretary of Tourism, Government of India, made a commitment that within 3 months, they would be opening the ITDC Gulmarg property.

I did meet him. It is in a prime location. They are committed to do it. It will be a great addition.

I read that Mufti Saab has said that there will be 150 model villages. Is there a possibility that these model villages can also become a tourism cluster?

This is a very new concept. In this there is tourism as well, depending on the potential of that village. If you have apples, you make an apple processing, reservation and packing unit etc. We are creating residential facilities as well. There are areas with best table honey, and there will be villages focussing on creating honey. We have started on this already.

How about the PMs idea on Smart Cities, is J&K also offering suggestions from within the state?

We have offered Srinagar and Jammu. We had said that because of the devastation from the floods Srinagar should be the first smart city of the country. It involves also convergence and coordination between different departments.

By Navin Berry

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