Rethinking tourism to take advantage of ecotourism potential

Ajay Khajuria
The theme ‘Rethinking Tourism’, adopted for the World Tourism Day 2022 by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNTWO) has, perhaps, been most appropriately selected for bringing into focus the challenges that face the Tourism Industry, across the Globe today, as it struggles to recover in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. International tourist arrivals which had reached an all time high of 1466.00 million tourists Globally, and 17.91 million tourist arrivals in India (including NRI’s) in 2019, plummeted on the outbreak of the pandemic to 399.00 million tourist arrivals Globally and 6.33 tourist arrivals in India in 2020. This spelled out a loss of $930 billion in International tourist receipts globally in 2020 which also included a loss of $23.10 billion in the foreign exchange earnings from tourism in India which fell from $30.05 billion in 2019 to $ 6.95 billion in 2020. While a good part of 2020 and 2021 remained a weak patch for the tourism Industry there are encouraging indications that it is now moving towards a strong rebound in 2022, as the pandemic abates. According to the latest UNWTO figures, almost 250 million International arrivals were recorded from January to May 2022, indicating a recovery by the sector to almost half (46%) of prepandemic 2019 levels. Similarly, figures released by the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India also indicate resurgence in International tourist arrivals in India during the period January- July, 2022 which stood at 2.76 million tourists, equivalent to 45.17% of the arrivals during the same period in 2019. As the industry endeavors to attain the pre-covid levels of tourism activity, however, it becomes essential for destinations to rethink and work out how to align with the post covid behavior of the potential tourists and to modernize infrastructure and facilities to develop tourism as a more sustainable, inclusive and a resilient sector of the economy. Amongst the paramount concerns of the tourists, of course, is maintaining of safety and hygiene protocols. This requires putting in place appropriate mechanisms and regulations for increased cleanliness, socially distanced seating, providing hand gel, and enforcing masks, etc. in some settings, while at the same time easing restrictions on travel, and providing ease of accessibility. Since the threat of resurgence of COVID has made people reluctant to travel and visit tourism hotspots, it is vital for destinations to publicize their hygiene and safety policies are and what measures are in place to persuade tourists that it is safe them. It is widely acknowledged that another important factor that is impacting the industry in the aftermath of the pandemic is the increasing inclination on part of tourists is to avoid crowded destinations and to visit new places which are off the beaten path, as also to make a minimum impact on the environment and local cultures during the visit. There is also an increased inclination to spend more time to get to know local heritage and cultures more closely. For a destination like Jammu and Kashmir, this shift in tourist preference in the post covid scenario represents a golden opportunity in developing and promoting the profuse mountainous areas of the Union Territory for Ecotourism as well as for Adventure tourism and other outdoor activities whose vast potential, especially in Jammu province, has remained largely outside the mainstream of tourism promotion so far. Rethinking the existing orientation to also bring this untapped potential into focus is, therefore, likely to yield beneficial results in promoting tourism to Jammu and Kashmir. Although the unique topography of Jammu and Kashmir, which encompasses the entire range of geographical features ranging from the sub-tropical plain areas to the temperate mountainous areas, has the potential to be promoted for catering to a number of tourist segments, the myopic focus on a limited number of destinations like Srinagar, Gulmarg, Pahalgam, Shri Mata Vaishnodevi Ji, etc. in the past, has resulted in a large number of other beautiful areas being deprived of the benefits that could accrue from an inclusive approach to tourism development in Jammu and Kashmir. Numerous rural districts of the Union Territory have the potential for promotion of Ecotourism, which is one of the fastest emerging segments of tourism and can have a profound impact on its rural economy. It comprises tourists who, not only want to move away from the cities for acquiring new knowledge and experiences, but who also want to ensure that their visit has a positive impact on the inhabitants and natural resources of the destinations, with earnings from visitors being ploughed back into preserving and conserving the natural environs and local cultural integrity. The unexplored areas of Jammu and Kashmir provide innumerable opportunities for ecotourism on a round the year basis. During the summer months it includes, among other activities, wildlife tourism opportunities in the Kisthwar High Altitude National Park, which is home to several rare species of mammals, primary amongst them being the Snow Leopard, the famous Kashmir Stag ‘Hangul’, Musk Deer, Ibex, Himalayan Tahr, Markhor, Himalayan Black bear, Brown Bear, etc. The Kisthwar Himalayas also afford excellent mountaineering opportunities for climbing World famous peaks like Sickle Moon, Brahma I, Brahma II, Nun, etc. Besides, Doda and other districts in the Folds of the Lesser Himalayas having temperate conditions also offer the opportunities for promoting trekking, camping, nature study, Camping, Bird-watching, Photography and eco-friendly adventure activities including Paragliding, Mountain Biking, Zip-lining and Rock-Climbing and river rafting during this period. During the winter months, besides skiing which can be held at a number of suitable locations in the temperate areas indicated in the previous para, almost all the other activities mentioned above, except location specific activities, can be organized in the districts in the Sub-tropical and Intermediate zones in areas along the Shivalik range. The Chenab provides excellent river rafting opportunities in Reasi District. while opportunities for Kayaking and Canoeing exist at Mansar and Ranjit Sagar Lakes. With the existence of potential for promoting Ecotourism on the scale outlined above, a shift towards including a focus on this segment of tourism has the potential to have a widespread positive impact on income generation, education and poverty reduction by improving individual livelihoods in local communities in the remotest areas of the Union Territory. A third important aspect which needs urgent attention is the development of Human Resources in the tourism sector. There can be no two opinions that sustainable development of the sector requires close collaboration across all major stakeholder groups, from the government to the communities as well as the private sector as well as the tourists. Also, since mobile technology is fast becoming a part of people’s lives and is changing way tourists make a choice about places they want to visit, the way they book their holidays and the activities they want to participate in, this requires the availability of the right human capital base throughout the sector to meet current and future market demand as well as to enhance competitiveness and sustainability of tourism destinations. All encompassing Human Resource Development initiatives therefore need to be thought out and put in place for reaping the full benefits of the growing and fast changing tourism industry. A rethink to give a wider scope to the development of tourism in Jammu and Kashmir in tune with the existing trends in the Industry can change outcomes substantially and place future growth on a sustainable and sure footing for the future. (The author is retired JKAS Officer and a former Director Tourism, Jammu)