Pir Panjal International Festival: Marketing Rajouri, Poonch, Bhaderwah and Basholi

18 Apr, 2013    ·   3883

D. Suba Chandran suggests measures to realise the potential of these sub-regions as major tourism hubs

Few weeks earlier, a commentary in this column focussed on the need to have “Friends of Pir Panjal” on the models of Friends of Tibet. This commentary is a follow up, though the subject was addressed few years ago.

The author was hopeful, that few years ago, under a young Chief Minister and his energetic Tourism minister, the twin districts of Rajouri and Poonch, along with Bhaderwah and Basholi will receive the attention it deserved; unfortunately, despite few initiatives and the opening of Mughal road cutting across the Pir Panjal, these regions are yet to become a tourism hub.

The question here is not about the potential; everyone understands the potential of these sub-regions – from Poonch to Basholi. Mountain passes, nomadic routes, untapped high altitude lakes, virgin meadows, archaeological treasures, Pahri paintings, and unexplored little valleys – what more one needs to highlight in stressing the potential of these sub-regions?

To reiterate – the problem here is not potential; it is rather about realizing that potential. What are the primary problems in realizing the tourism potential of these regions? How to convert the potential into performance and in the process market these sub-regions?

It appears there are three primary problems in converting the potential of these sub-regions into a major tourism hub. First and foremost, there seems to be an apprehension that any investment in improving the potential of tourism in this region will divert the attention of tourists from elsewhere within J&K. Such an argument does not make any sense and in fact does a huge dis-service to the massive potential that the entire State of J&K and each of its sub-regions have in absorbing and creating enough space for tourist inflow, rather than diverting the existing flow.

In fact, tourists would love to return repeatedly to a State which has to offer so much. There is hardly any other State in India, or for that matter in South Asia with a such varied topography, ethnic mosaic, history and anthropology. In fact, the emphasis of the WWF in J&K would also reveal, J&K is not only about places and people, but also about species!

Since there is an apprehension, it is essential to have a dialogue at the people level, and more importantly at the tourism industry level, within various parts of J&K. Perhaps, the tourism industry is also unfortunately divided over regional lines between Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. However, unlike the political divide, this difference is not absolute. This divide can be easily managed, if there are a series of dialogue at the societal levels.

Second, there is a problem with the State and its government. Tourism ministry alone cannot revive tourism in these sub-regions; multiple ministries will have to ensure there are better roads and better facilities that a tourist may need. Even a section that those come for adventure tourism would, though would love the absence of facilities, for that is what makes it an adventure – still would prefer basic infrastructure – electricity, hotel and internet to name a few.

It is in this context, the State has not succeeded in providing the basic infrastructure to the sub-regions such as Rajouri, Poonch, Bhaderwah and Basholi. While for a long time, the previous regimes hid under the militancy and violence, both Jora and Omar Abdullah had an excellent opportunity. True they may have built a road side cafeteria in front of the Chingus fort, viewing galleries in Budhal, opened the Mughal route, organised a car rally and constructed few more Dak Bungalows all around. But what is the net result? Why have these sub-regions still remain as tourism-shadow areas?

Tourism in J&K cannot be developed by its Tourism ministry alone; there has to be a larger vision and coordination in terms of multiple ministries. In a way, the Chief Minister was given a situation in a platter, especially with an enthusiastic tourism minister like Rigzin Jora. Omar Abdullah could have done wonders in placing J&K in the global tourism map, if only he had succeeded in coordinating between the multiple ministries. None could hide under the general excuse – lack of sufficient funds; there was substantial support and resources; it was rather a failure of coordination.

Unlike other departments and areas, tourism does not require round the clock maintenance and support from the State; once the basic infrastructure is created at the ground level along with local and independent stakeholders, the industry will pick up a momentum of its own, and create a huge network not only within the State of J&K and the rest of India, but at the global level. In the process, the industry would have created not only adequate profits for the State, but also provided the much needed employment and creative space for the youths.

Third big problem in achieving the tourism potential of these four sub-regions – Poonch, Rajouri, Bhaderwah and Basholi – is the lack of adequate local stakeholders, basic knowledge about tourism, and a strong civil society network. Kashmir valley has a traditional advantage over this issue; it has a strong industry. Despite violence and militancy, there are adequate stakeholders within Valley, with sufficient knowledge and capacity to run a tourism industry.

No region can build tourism just with potential alone; there has to be adequate capacity at the local level to exploit that potential. In Kashmir valley, that potential exists. However, this cannot be considered as a huge set back. Ladakh, few decades back did not have a thriving industry, as it has today. With few flights and closed for more than half of the year, it was never easy to enter into Ladakh; however, today, Ladakh has become a major tourism destination in J&K. How did the change come about in what is referred as a cold desert? What can the four sub-regions that is being discussed can learn from Ladakh experience?

It is in this context, an international festival of Pir Panjal can play a crucial role. On the models of Ladakh festival, which today is truly international, these four regions should attempt a Pir Panjal international festival, linking them with each other. The Ladakh festival does not take place in Leh; it covers the entire region. A similar festival, covering the sub regions from Poonch to Basholi can be a beginning.

As explained above, there is something for every tourist in the Pir Panjal – trekkers, historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, pilgrims, environmentalists, and artists. The wrestling in this part of the world has a charm of its own and so does the Pahri painting. A Pir Panjal festival spread over a period of week or two, covering these four sub-regions will not only get international attention and end isolation, but also bring the region and communities closer. Thanks to the lack of adequate opportunities, and the strain on government employment, there is a struggle for the scarce resources, polarizing the communities on ethnic and religious terms. Realizing the tourism potential of this region will be a great economic boon, and create adequate assets at the civil society level.

With militancy coming to an end in this region, developing tourism can play a substantial role in bringing economic prosperity. An international Pir Panjal festival could be a trigger.

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir