The empathetic declaration of its intent, by the Central Government, to boost tourism in Jammu and Kashmir has raised expectations on both sides of the Pir Panchal. While in the valley, prospects of a renewed effort to revive tourism brings hope of return to business as usual accruing from the well developed and promoted, but currently hibernating, tourism product of Kashmir, in respect of the under-promoted Jammu region too it brings hope that the vast tourism potential existing throughout the length and breadth of the province will finally be promoted to realize its potential, and thereby, open up new job opportunities including in its rural and remote areas.
Constituting over 62 percent of the total land area of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, the Sub-Himalayan Jammu Region is well known as a pilgrimage tourism destination. However the full tourism potential of its largely untapped mountainscapes which host innumerable areas of pristine natural beauty and a varied and rich cultural heritage has virtually remained under the bushel so far.
Jammu’s variegated topography which, except for a narrow portion of the alluvial Indo-Gangetic plains skirting its South-Western boundary, is mostly hilly and mountainous, comprising the Shivalik Range along with offshoots of the lesser Himalayas stretching across its middle, and rimmed by the mighty Pir Panjal Range and Kishtwar Himalaya along its North-East, has around 68.5 percent of the total forest cover in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, which includes areas with the salubrious ‘Deodar’ Forests, comparable in terms of pristine beauty, to tourist destinations in the ‘Black Forests’ region in Germany, visited by millions of tourists annually.
A number of Wildlife Sanctuaries stand notified in the region amongst which the Kishtwar High Altitude National Park is home to several rare and endangered species of mammals, like the Snow Leopard, famous Kashmir Stag ‘Hangul’ which migrates to this park during winters, the Musk Deer, Ibex, Himalayan Tahr, Markhor, Himalayan Black bear, and Brown Bear, etc. and holds tremendous potential for promotion of Ecotourism, if properly implemented. A large variety of birds belonging to different species can also be found across the region, including aquatic (largely migratory) birds like Mallard, Eurasian Wigeon, Bar headed Geese, Shelduck, etc. seen in the Gharana, Surinsar-Mansar, Makwal, and other Wetlands which, though holding an immense attraction, are practically unknown.
Also hidden away since centuries, in the mountainous areas of Jammu, are scores of beautiful meadows, valleys and lakes. Though, over time, some basic infrastructure and amenities for tourists have been created at many of these attractive locations like Sanasar, Patnitop, Bhaderwah, Jai Valley, Sarthal, Mansar Lake and Surinsar Lake, etc. and which, no doubt, have come to be frequented by increasing number of tourists, a sustained and concerted effort to develop these destinations as vibrant tourist resorts with all required amenities and services, and to promote them nationally and internationally as leisure tourism destinations, has remained conspicuously missing.
Similarly, opportunities for adventure activities like river rafting, paragliding, skiing, trekking and nature camps, etc. are afforded in abundance by the high mountain peaks and glaciers; high altitude lakes; rivers with ice cool waters; mountain streams, water-falls, springs and trekking routes etc. that mark Jammu’s landscape. Besides Paragliding at Pancheri, Pouni, Aghar Jitto, Athem, and Chinta; Skiing at Patnitop, Madhatop, Sanasar, Padri, Sarthal and Dhaggar; River-rafting in the Chenab near Reasi and Akhnoor; Aquatic sports at Satbain/Basholi (Ranjit Sagar Lake) and Thanpal (Salal Lake); and, Mountaineering in the Kishtwar Himalayas, there are innumerable trekking opportunities in the entire mountainous area of the region for both the summer as well as winter months. However, despite an increasing trend for exploring new areas for undertaking such activities amongst tourists within the country and abroad, these activities have not been adequately encouraged, and efforts made to attract adventure sports enthusiasts here leave much to be desired.
Jammu also hosts substantial fare for the tourists interested in exploring different cultures. The World famous miniature paintings of Basholi; a multitude of Forts, Palaces and other heritage structures, including the Mubarak Mandi Heritage Complex- the seat of power of the erstwhile rulers who had carved out the State of Jammu and Kashmir, are a treat for any visitor. Heritage structures at Poonch, Rajouri, (including spots along the old Mughal route) Reasi, Kirmchi, Babor, Billawar, Bhaderwah, are potential attractions, if properly showcased. Similarly, the pageantry of the unique folk cultures presented by the inhabitants of the different valleys and other sub-regions tucked away in the hills and mountains of Jammu, including the nomadic tribal culture; the colorful Mela Patt at Bhaderwah and the huge rural mela at Jhiri; the vibrant Dogra theatre; and the melodious contributions of household names like K. L. Sehgal, Begam Akhtar and many others, are testimony to the rich cultural heritage of the region.
The pilgrims/tourists visiting the World famous Holy Shrine of Vaishnodeviji also like to visit other known pilgrimage centers which dot the hilly landscape in the region like Shivkhori, Budha Amarnath, Shahadara Sharief, Dera Baba Banda, Sudh Mahadev, Machail Mata, Sukhrala Mata, Chichi Mata and Raghunath Temple, besides other pilgrimage centers in Jammu, the City of Temples, but little has been done to facilitate such visits. Moreover this captive tourist/pilgrim traffic of around 10 million visiting the Holy Shrine every year, presents a golden opportunity for diverting a large chunk out of these tourists to experience all other kinds of tourist attractions in the region as per their choice, before they return.
The latent tourism product of the region provides opportunities for attracting a wide spectrum of tourists interested in Leisure, Adventure, Culture and Heritage Tourism besides implementation of Ecotourism, in addition to the existing Pilgrimage tourism. With the labour intensive nature of tourism and its multiplier effect on employment in related sectors, this has the potential of having a significant impact on Jammu’s urban as well as the rural economies, including in its remotest areas.
The foundations for promoting tourism to Jammu in a holistic manner already stand laid over a decade ago when, during a short spurt of all round activity, the Tourism Department created basic infrastructure/amenities for tourists at a large number of the potential destinations across the region. However the required effort has not been visible during the intervening period to promote these potential areas in an effective manner.
In the above backdrop, a multi-stakeholder effort is now the need of the hour to realize Jammu’s full tourism potential, with the Government providing for properly managed amenities and services in existing and potential destination areas, putting in place an effective marketing strategy, gearing up the regulatory mechanism, promoting human resource development and facilitating community participation; with the industry leaders, on their part, rising to the occasion and improving standards, coming up with revised packages and making investments in innovative individual enterprise or public private partnerships; and, not the least, with the youth of the region participating wholeheartedly by empowering themselves with the knowledge and skills required to feul the change and to partake the benefits accruing through entrepreneurship or availing job opportunities.
In the ultimate analysis, it is the effectiveness of the efforts made by the concerned authorities to bring all stakeholders in sync to take the challenge which will determine the success in actualizing the Government of India’s declared policy of developing Jammu and Kashmir at par with other highly developed States and Union Territories in the country, in respect of this important sector of its economy.
(The author is a retired KAS officer and a former Director Tourism, Jammu)