‘Responsible Tourism’ to save Gurez Valley

Mohd Aslam Bhat
Gurez Valley – nestled in the high altitude Himalayan ranges of the northern Jammu and Kashmir – is one of the newly explored boarder area tourist destination in India. Home to a shina speaking Dard tribe, this valley has been historically an important place connecting Jammu & Kashmir with other regions of the world including China, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Europe and Russia. Geo-historically Gurez valley was a part of famed silk route and this entire region stretching from the Kohistan of Sawat and Gilgit-Baltistain to northern Kashmir was known as Dardistain.
During colonial period many western scholars including British historian Sir Aarel Stein, Walter Larance and Franklin Delano Roosavelt visited and cherished this region specifically Gurez valley for its beauty and unique culture of Dards. However, after partition in 1947, radical transformation took place and like other buffer zones of Jammu and Kashmir, Gurez valley was closed for free movement of people along silk route. Hostile line of control between India and Pakistan disconnected the Dard-shin people and their culture suffered a divide. Such hostility ultimately brought far reaching changes from both sides of the border including militarization, cross-border shelling and consequent forced displacement of people. To escape the war like situation along LOC, many people from Gurez valley migrated to Bandipora, Ganderbal and adjoining area and settled there. This exodus began in 2002 with the killing of 18 civilians due to cross-border firing in Dawar and adjoining villages of Gurez.
Nevertheless, for younger generation of Gurez valley, this situation has by chance widened their cultural horizon by opening an opportunity for many of them to study in Srinagar, Jammu and other cities of the country from early stages of their formal education. Many of them like Aadil Gurezi, Waqar Khan developed penchant for untraditional cultures. But for people, who still stay in Gurez valley aren’t untouched from change and development. With the episodes of ceasefire along line of control, many development projects have been initiated in Gurez Valley bearing mixed imprints on the socio-economic life of people. From the development of NHPC 330 MW Kishanganga hydro-power project – which led to displacement of around 610 families from their ancestral land – to establishment of telecommunication facilities, educational institutions, roads, health-care facilities to now tourism, people in Gurez valley are experiencing a shift from subsistence economy to market economy.
However, unabated construction of hotels, restaurants, shops and resultant expansion of market has triggered a mixed reaction among local Dards, with some being happy with new facilities, while others are apprehensive about local ecosystem. As elsewhere, excessive exploitation of natural resources and adoption of modern lifestyle has introduced new challenges in Gurez valley. Deforestation, high concentration of polythene, plastic and other dis-solvable solids in Kishanganga river and consequent deterioration of water quality are the serious issues emerging in Gurez valley. One could witness plastics all around and people throwing all their household garbage and waste into the Kishanganga river. This year on 6th August, SDM Gurez took an initiative for collection of waste, but more needs to be done before Gurez valley turns into an open dump. Hotels, restaurants and other service providers opt for single-use plastic products, which are historically common within travel and tourism sector, but for local people need to seriously think about the issue and promote 2 “responsible tourism” with strong guidelines for both visitors and hosts to ensure sustainability. Responsible tourism by definition is about making better places for people to live-in and better places for people to visit. It connotes the responsibility for both hosts and tourists to ensure to minimise negative social, economic and environmental impacts of tourism and make it more sustainable.
Hence, for preservation of the ecosystem and generating a balance of profit, responsible tourism is the way forward. Gurez valley is one of the beautiful scene of diverse flora and fauna and home to some rare and endangered species including Musk Deer, Ibex, snow leopard, brown bear etc. And rich in rare herbs and medicinal plants. However, alongside the environmental issues, the uncontrolled hunting of musk deer during winters and smuggling of rare herbs specifically from Tutail area is threatening the beautiful scene of Gurez valley. To preserve this valley, the concept of responsible tourism needs to be implemented with some strict measures including efficient solid waste management, wide-scale plantation drives and ban on deforestation and hunting of endangered species.
(The author is Assistant Professor (Sociology) Department of Higher Education)