Although it was hit by flood in 2014, the tourism and infrastructure in Kashmir recovered swiftly as it received nearly nine million tourists in 2015. The year 2016 is declared as the year of adventure, says Mahmood Ahmad Shah.
What was the tourist footfall in the last fiscal?
The year 2015 was extremely satisfying for us, keeping in view the floods, which had hit the valley and we experienced the worst disaster. After 104 years a flood of such magnitude devastated some parts of the valley. Keeping in view how the disaster hit, we considered that we would recover in two or three years but thankfully we recovered very quickly and 2015 was a satisfying year as far as the arrivals are concerned. We received a footfall of about 200,000 foreign tourists and some 8,500,000 domestic tourists.
How do you market Kashmir in the tourism industry?
Well the theme is to see Kashmir in new light. We have always remained an all season destination but usually the tourists arrive in spring and summer. What we want is that we offer all kinds of products for the tourism board. Our winters and autumns are equally beautiful and attractive as the spring and the summer. So we would like to market ourselves as an all weather and all season destination and we would like to shrug off the negative perceptions people have regarding the security and safety. In order to address these factors across the country we have taken up a set of road shows, which include MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferencing and Exhibition) and golf. So we are not only focusing on niche and adventure but on MICE and golf because now we have a set of golf courses in Pehelgam, Gulmarg and Jammu that form the golf circuit. Similarly we have conference centres at Pehelgam and Gulmarg with good infrastructure and affordable price.
For example, we charge INR 3,000 (EUR 39) for sightseeing and the flight tickets are also economic with INR 6000 (EUR 79) for the return. So our fares are also subsidised and we are getting a good response as our bookings are full in March with most tourists from European countries such as Austria and France. This push is also because of our marketing strategies through which we participate in international tourism events and roadshows. Last year we participated in a tourism festival in Austria where we received a good response.
What are your key products and experiences that attract maximum tourists?
We are promoting ourselves as an all weather destination. This year has been declared as the year of adventure. So we have unique things to offer. Himalayas is one of the best trekking destinations and we have seven lake treks in the whole of the Himalayas and simultaneously we have other treks such as the Kolahoi glacier trek. The number of lakes in Jammu and Kashmir is 106 that are located at highest altitudes in the country and Himachal Pradesh is second. So it is the place for the most wonderful trekking experiences. Simultaneously what we have done is that we have started 17 mountaineering expeditions. One can now climb Saser Kangri (7162m), the highest peak in Kashmir, and Nun Kun (7135m) the second highest peak in Kashmir. We are trying to identify four peaks, which will be the trekking peaks. Besides we also have some trekking maps dedicated to particular treks. Along with that, paragliding has picked up in Kashmir and rafting is going on in Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. So we have worked on the adventure and people are finding it attractive.
What strategies set you apart from the other Indian states and what challenges you face in promoting J&K as a tourist destination?
We have a set of road shows in Indore, Nagpur, Raipur, Surat, Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Delhi that are focussed on the promotion of J&K in the metropolitan cities. We have expanded ourselves to the big cities because they are also our good market and as the amenities come off as broad, the people are increasingly travelling abroad.
We are also very well-known for Bollywood films that have been here and in the US we have become very popular through that. We are trying to divert them with in the country because we offer an alternative to Europe at an affordable price.
We are also trying to attract Bollywood through movies like Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) and Fitoor (2016) that portray Kashmir as a romantic destination. We had our own share of misfortune and bad luck and had been portrayed very negatively in Bollywood films like Mission Kashmir (2000). But again we will showcase it as a romantic destination.
In terms of infrastructure, how prepared is J&K to receive tourists, especially after the floods?
Infrastructure is not the concern, we are quite comfortable and it is quite good. It is sufficient to cater to the tourists. We had problems because of the floods but thankfully we have recovered in a very short span of time. Although Gulmarg, Sonamarg, Patnitop and Pahalgam are a few of our star destinations, offbets destinations such as Gurez, BaniBasohli, Lolab-Bungus, Kokernag-Sinthan top, Verinag, Bhadewah, Aharbal, Poonch-Rajouri, Margan hills in Kishtwar and Zanskar are being developed.
We have developed infrastructure facilities there as well. So we not only want to showcase our star destinations but other upcoming destinations as well.
What is the budget for this fiscal for tourism?
Our late chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed who demised recently in January had a great vision for tourism and after him it is our duty to work to realise his dreams. Under his leadership the tourism sector was always well funded because of which we were able to organise campaigns and roadshows.
Focusing on Europe, how much is your reach in the European market?
People from Europe have been coming to the state of Jammu and Kashmir and they primarily come for two aspects – one is for skiing and other is for adventure. And skiing has gone very well this year. We will be participating at ITB Berlin this year and we are also doing a promotional campaign in the EU. And thankfully we are getting a good response.