Tourism, the fastest growing industries in the world is as important for Indian economy as other world countries. Our UT of Jammu and Kashmir is no exception with officially 1.6 crore tourists visited Jammu and only 8.3 lakh visited Kashmir in 2019. The fact is Jammu and Kashmir does not appear even in top ten of domestic tourist destinations despite the fact that we have around footfall of one crore sixty lakh tourists in Jammu itself. As rightly observed by J&K High Court, lack of development of alternative tourists’ destinations in addition to Shri Mata Vaishno Devi, we are not able to tap even 5% of those coming for pilgrims to alternative tourists places. The reality is that since independence focus is on to increase tourists in turbulent Kashmir but since 1990 it’s just plummeting from serious to hopeless situation right now. Uncertainty, attack on tourists, attack on Shri Amarnath pilgrimage, kidnappings of foreign tourists, stone pelting on tourists and what not has virtually wiped out Kashmir from tourist destination map and minds.
Fault lies in the planning, vision and implementation itself. With year after year summer lockdown calendar in place for decades now no government at centre or state focused on Jammu division which has equally mesmerizing tourist destinations but dominance of Kashmir centric lobby never allowed Jammu to develop infra or plan or publicize. Poonch, Rajouri, Udhampur, Kishtwar, Doda, Bhaderwah all have scenic- beautiful locations, as picturesque as Kashmir, but lack infra and focus to market. ‘Chenab Region’ specifically despite being hometown area of ex CM Ghulam Nabi Azad and at present constituency of PMO Dr Jatinder Singh, never got the required flip to emerge on national or international tourism map just due to mindset of not offending Kashmir. No synchronization of three wings of tourism departments namely Director Tourism, JKTDC and Development Authorities. Least maintained tourist huts, cafeterias with practically no power backup, skeleton kitchen staff, lack of professionalism of the staff mark the sorry state of affairs at present. Development Authorities are equally responsible as no effort has been made to improve infrastructure, even if improved, no publicity, no maintenance of roads in Jammu region to the extent that out of 100 tourist destination roads to be funded/constructed by GoI only 3 from J&K are proposed (Sonamarg, Pahalgam and Lolab), all in Kashmir only.
What can be more official apathy that Holy town of Katra catering to almost every tourist coming to J&K has not been spared, even renewal of licenses of existing hotels at Katra has become a ping pong match between Pollution Control Board and Tourism department, both directing hoteliers to first get NOC from other department first before renewal which means an indefinite deadlock. Even Navratra Festival at Katra, mainstay of cultural activities in Jammu region and aastha of crores of Hindus of India has not been spared as it has become fiefdom of Tourism Department to the extent that local artists and event managers are being harassed and exploited as payments of even 2019 are pending what to talk of 2020 festival payments. How Dogra/Pahari art and culture is going to survive as almost blanket ban on cultural activities and events since July 2019 is in place, during tenure of previous Commissioner Secretary and Director Tourism Jammu. The list of cancelled events include Summer Festival of Patnitop, Paddar Cultural Festival, Mela Patt at Bhaderwah, Mela at Jhajjar Kotli and Suchetgarh, Kailash Yatra from Bhaderwah and Dudu, Trekking from Dudu to Kailash Kund, rallies etc.
Adventure Tourism is another aspect totally ignored or discouraged in Jammu division. The Chenab, which offers one of the world’s 10 best rafting stretches, got surveyed by experts in the year 2007, even famous rafters from Nepal identified the stretches where the sport can be introduced. According to the report, the 20-km stretch from Gulabgarh to Afwani in District Kishtwar is the most suitable stretch for white-water rafting along the river. The stretch is ideal for rafting from beginners to advanced level. The nearly 30-km stretch from Thathri to Pul Doda has been declared feasible for Grades I to V, the 9-km stretch from Chanderkote to Seri in District Ramban fit for Grade II to VI rafting, as per the report. Administration also conducted a trial run for river rafting from Ambaran to Jia Pota Ghatt in Akhnoor. Leave alone Chenab Region rafting which never saw the daylight despite a peaceful area, even adventure sports of rafting being undertaken in Reasi district now for almost last ten years faces departmental roadblocks as since last one year licenses for rafting are not being renewed, why nobody wants to answer and file is being shuttled between Assistant Director Tourism Katra to Director Tourism Jammu to Civil Secretariat and back despite the fact that even a three-day long Chenab Challenge-River Rafting Championship-2016 was held and most recently in 2019 also with international rafters Naik Balwinder Singh and Havildar Yogesh KN among teams that participated in the event. How are we going to promote local tourism in Jammu without such events which even PIB Jammu and Kashmir will find hard to explain? Despite much talked Mansar rejuvenation plan announced yet surprisingly no mention of Ropeway Project at Mansar, Prefeasibility Study Report of which was done by J&K Cable Corporation, an excellent opportunity to develop Mansar but absence of Suriansar- Mansar Master Plan even now hampers all development and reduce all this to photo sessions and announcements only. No one knows even the fate of Sudhmahadev-Mantalai or Billawar tehsil’s Mata Bala Sundari shrine ropeway project.
” Saffron cultivation of Kishtwar is never talked of or promoted. Bhaderwah’s rajma and anardana of Ramban cultivation are never part of tourism buzz of Jammu and Kashmir. Nobody talks of Noori Chamb, Surankote Valley, Shri Budha Amarnath Ji Mandir, Dehra Gali or Nangali Sahib Gurudwara or other scenic beautiful places of Poonch or Rajouri. Jai Valley or Machail Mata pilgrimage have never got national coverage leave alone international one. What can be more glaring example of official apathy then the very fact that even events organized in the name of Pre Global Investors Summit are Kashmir centric only. GoI fails to admit and address the fact that no investor will risk its hundreds of crores in terrorism hit Kashmir and instead of concentrating on peaceful Jammu Division, administration just wastes its time, energy and money on Kashmir with least results on ground. Fact is that footfall of tourists in Kashmir is just 5% of Jammu tourists’ footfall, why peaceful Jammu division is neglected remains a mystery except that policy of appeasement is very much in place.
Even Jammu, Samba, Kathua are not spared of appeasement policy as all three major projects proposed to give Jammu Tourism a flip are still in hibernation: improvement/up gradation of Ragunath Bazar, Recreational Park at Bhagwati Nagar, Jammu and Pilgrimage Circuit of Khoon Temple-Chountra Mata -Sukarala Devi-Mata Bala Sundari along with the upcoming bus stand cum multilevel parking are still to see the daylights beyond DPR. Artificial Lake and Tawi River Front are forgotten forever, Jammu Ropeway partially operation with non operational restaurants as such no significant value and Jammu Zoo Project is just limping, when it will cross the finishing line no one knows. Fate of Heritage Mubarak Mandi restoration seems to be herculean task as despite Master Plan in place whims and fancies of officials of Heritage Society are supreme, site has been converted into labour colony defying all norms, entry of outsiders- even press banned, why nobody wants to explain, what is there to hide except Master Plan violations, more to hide than show-transparency/accountability least preferred even under LG rule?
Passing strictures against Tourism Department J&K High Court most aptly summarised, “It cannot be denied that tourism in Jammu & Kashmir is one of the major employment/revenue generator but our closed mind has failed us in exploiting this source to the optimum. Keep everything close to its chest and not disclosing information about the tourism and adventure sports facilities available in Jammu & Kashmir. We all know the reach of social media. Days of hard copies of brochures are gone. Prospective tourists visit websites, especially the Government websites, as these provide authentic information but we have failed. Again question is of mindset. Why we want to keep everything close to our chest? We are not playing card game. Let the people all around know about the tourism and adventure sports facilities available in Jammu & Kashmir.” What can be more astonishing is the fact that Jammu Tourism Department doesn’t have even Twitter or other handle for publicity reasons better know to officials.
DPRs are made and submitted but what happens after that no one knows. Cumulative cost of these major tourism projects are hundreds of crores and has major impact on development of entire region. Most amazing part is that all these projects are under Centrally Sponsored schemes as such no problem of finance but still delay in transforming dreams into reality is simply inexplicable. Why every single project of Jammu region gets entangled in forest land or environmental issues? The fact is that despite being ruled by BJP both at Centre and local UT level all project files are stuck up in ‘Bureaucratic Hurdles’; who is sitting on these important project files, what are the reasons, why unnecessary hurdles, why doubting DPRs of our own state agencies, where is the need of reconsideration, why in ordinate delays? Why all Jammu projects remain constrained to mere announcements, photo sessions and newspaper headlines but practically nothing on ground due to official apathy. It’s really serious situation for Jammu Tourism. Questions are many but no answers. So much is the dominance of Kashmir centric lobby that even on foreign trips almost no Jammu official is being taken onboard. Post pandemic scenario will the present dispensation take corrective steps to implement all pending projects or Jammu will keep on facing discrimination, only time will tell ?