Travel

Kashmir: A Tourist s’ Paradise

A survey report on growing tourism in Azad Jammu and Kashmir
In the last two decades, tourism has experienced a rapid increase in the lush green mountains of Azad Jammu and Kashmir. This growth has led to the prospects of substantial economic and social growth in the region. AJK’s panoramic natural beauty, archaeological and historical heritage, as well as the unfolding of ancient history of the state, remains a huge draw for locals and foreigners. The importance of development of tourism in Azad Jammu and Kashmir has been overlooked in the past.



The following survey sets out to explore potential prospects of and setbacks to Azad Jammu and Kashmir’s tourism vis-à-vis government policies, system in place and the role of locals in order to determine the ways in which government and the community as a whole can benefit from tourism with special assistance from the federal government of Pakistan. A better understanding of local government’s role in enhancing cultural and sustainable tourism is necessary. 
The survey conducted is aimed at ascertaining the following:
•  Exploring and identifying possible tourist attractions
Areas in need of exploration and attention include Pak Sar (Haldi Gatti) and Dara Baiek. The significance of these areas is their freshwater streams locally known as Chashmas, which are a great source of clean drinking water and could prove to be a tourist attraction.
 Existing tourism policy
The existing tourism policy of AJK is to explore, identify and develop tourist attractions via public and private partnership in the region. AJK’s Tourism Department is currently working to promote tourism in collaboration with the private sector. The new tourism policy, ‘diversification to tourism’, has set its focus on maintaining and developing infrastructure for the last three years. The investment by the private sector merged with the government facilitates and regulates the process via Tourism Promotion Act 2019.
•  Present tourist attractions, their potential and existing facilities 
Tourist attractions are divided into two categories. Areas popular among local tourists include District Neelum (Kutton, Keran, Upper Neelum, Sharda, Surgan, Kel, Tao Butt, Halmat, Shounther, Karka), District Muzaffarabad (Muzaffarabad, Pirchanasi, Shaheed Gali, Danna), District Hattian (Chikkar, Dao Khan, Leepa Valley), District Bagh (Sudhan Gali, Dheerkot, Neela Butt), District Haveli (Lasdanna, Aliabad, Haji peer, Mehmood Gali, Badori), District Poonch & Sudhanoti (Rawalakot, Banjonsa, Koian, Toli Pir, Ghorimar, Tatta Pani, Nagashwar, Palandri & Char Bayar), District Kotli (Kotli, Sarda, Fateh Pur, Khoi Ratta, Banna Valley, Sehnsa, Sersawa and Teenda) and District Mirpur and Bhimber (Mirpur, Mangla, Ramkot Fort, Baghsar, Jhandi Chontra & Samahni Valley)
Areas popular among foreign tourists include District Muzaffarabad (Muzaffarabad, Pirchanasi, Shaheed Gali, Danna), District Hattian (Chikkar, Dao Khan), District Bagh (Sudhan Gali, Dheerkot, Neela Butt), District Poonch and Sudhanoti (Rawalakot, Banjonsa , Koian, Toli Pir, Ghorimar, Tatta Pani, Nagashwar), District Kotli (Kotli, Sarda, Fateh Pur, Khoi Ratta, Banna Valley), District Mirpur (Mirpur city, Ramkot Fort) and District Bhimber (Baghsar, Jhandi Chontra).  
Summarized views of tourists, locals and government institutions as obtained during the interaction are appended below:
Interaction with Tourists

Q.    What is your opinion about tourism in Kashmir?
100% of tourists agreed that Kashmir is a wonderful place to visit.
Q.    Which areas did you visit?
60% visited Neelum, Muzaffarabad, Peer Chanasi and Banjosa. 
Q.    Which area fascinated you the most and were you satisfied with the facilities provided?
40% responded that they were fascinated by the beauty of Neelum. 95% of the tourists complained that there were no garbage disposal bins and suggested that local government should address this issue immediately.
Q.    What is your opinion about security in Kashmir?
95% agreed that Kashmir is a peaceful and secure region and that they did not face any problem while travelling to Kashmir. Families felt safe travelling the region. 
Q.    Would you like to visit again and recommend your relatives and friends to visit Kashmir?
100% responded, yes.
Q.    What are your suggestions with respect to trout fishing, hiking and trekking? 
90% opined there is no hiking and trekking in the region and trout fish is confined to certain places only.
Q.    What are your suggestions to make this area interesting for tourists? Is the transport facility in the region appropriate?
Tourists suggested hotels having better facilities and sitting arrangements in public areas. Museum, musical places, paragliding, hiking, trekking and boating would make the area an interesting place for all. 80% agreed with appropriate and economical transport facility in the area tourists would find the experience much more enjoyable.
Azad Kashmir Government, Administration and Tourism Department
Q.    Do you have any tourist database?
Commissioner Muzaffarabad Azad Jammu & Kashmir admitted on having a database for tourists available with Kohala check post, where local police mark number of vehicles entering in the region, and the online Tourism Department also maintains data. DG Tourism and Archeology also admitted on having a database. However, Secretary Tourism Department denyed having any data in Management Information System. 
Q.    Which areas have gained central significance?
The majority agreed upon Neelum Valley, Tao Butt, Jhelum Valley and areas of Poonch.
Q.    What are the future projects and priorities regarding tourism?
The Tourism Department specified that they are going to initiate ‘Tourism Corridor’ project that is in queue but indicated having budget constraints. 
Q.    What are the measures taken for improvement of security situation?
The concerned authorities said it is the most peaceful region and friendly atmosphere, no plundering and looting incident registered so far. On Eid Day, approximately 70,000 tourists entered Neelum Valley. Tourism Department requested police to train and provide tourist police for the region, 120 people selected from existing police specifically for tourists’ security from existing police.
Q.    What kind of infrastructure development is being undertaken to facilitate tourists? 
Official figures state that roads and infrastructure have been enhanced over the last three years. Tourism Policy 2019 SOPs devised awareness campaign initiated by Tourism Department for local community to ban polythene bags and suggested the use of biodegradable bags. Area Manager State Life Insurance Corporation in Muzaffarabad suggested that infrastructure development funds should be transferred to Pak Army as she states that 95% of the locals believe that Pak Army is the only institution that will use development funds efficiently.
Q.    Are there any tourism guidance centers?
The Tourism Department authorities stated that there are five tourism guidance and information centres: Azad Patan, Kohala, Rawalakot, Brarkot and Mangla. 



Interaction with Locals
Q.    What is your opinion about tourists visiting your area?
90% are satisfied and openly welcome but complained that the disposal of garbage is a concern. 
Q.    Do you have any complaints and suggestions?
20% believe that Muzaffarabad city is considered to be one of the most peaceful cities in the region but after the increase in tourism it has seen a rise in theft incidents, etc. 22% believe, in the long, run climate related issues would arise as local government is only raising slogans and not engaging in resolving issues such as pollution. 25% believe  government is promoting tourist areas based on nepotism. While 15% consider that government improved road and infrastructure and 23% are concerned about the lack of safety. For example, there is no one to guide the tourists to not take selfies near river banks because incidents of drowning while taking selfies occur often.  
Q.    Is there any increase in your earnings?   
Groups of people stated how they earn money without depending on government sources in order to survive. They installed Jundher, a machine for grinding flour that does not require electricity as it runs on water, is a tourist attraction on its own. Jundher is one of the main sources of earning for locals.
Conclusions
It was observed during the survey that Tourism Department in collaboration with local government needs to focus and provide guidance in the following areas: 
a.    Tourist guidance information boards. 
b.    More tourist information centers to provide maps, brochures, etc., and provide information about safety aspects, e.g., avoiding selfies near rivers and other dangerous spots as it can cause tragic incidents. 
c.    Protection of natural fruit trees, local flora and fauna of the region. The aforementioned areas are rich in herbs and wild vegetables that are good source for medical research. Kunji, a famous vegetable of this region, is rich in Omega 3, essential fatty acids and a multitude of vitamins, known as Kasrods in the west.
d.    Introducing trekking expeditions. 
e.    Embroidery, carpets, paper mesh, local culture and tradition, nomads and organic villages would definitely not only benefit the local community and local government but also would add meaning to the tourism industry. 
f.    Developing water sources and its conservation is significant. 
g.    The local government needs to work on exploration of beautiful mountains of Azad Kashmir rich in natural resources, precious metals and stones like ruby, sapphire, etc., in collaboration with federal government of Pakistan, which would not only enhance the well-being of local population but also boost the economy of the country. HH


The writer tweets @MaryumMaqsood 
E-mail:[email protected]

 

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