The hosting of the G20 Tourism Working Group in Jammu and Kashmir has marked a significant turning point for the region’s tourism industry. Calling it the ‘game-changer’, Syed Abid Rasheed Shah (IAS) Secretary Tourism & Culture, Govt of J&K stated that a notable surge in inbound tourist arrivals, particularly foreign tourists, has been observed after the event.
“The number of tourists visiting us from abroad this year is the highest in the last 30 years,” he told ETTravelWorld. “Our eventual goal is to become one of the world’s premier tourist destinations,” Shah continued.
The transformation of Jammu and Kashmir from an underrated tourism destination to a thriving tourism hotspot with 70-80 daily flights landing just in Kashmir today is nothing short of phenomenal. When it comes to assessing the overall resurgence of tourism in Jammu and Kashmir, the numbers tell a compelling tale too. “Last year, we recorded a historic high of 1.88 crores in tourist numbers for the calendar year 2022,” said Shah, adding that this milestone is indicative of the region’s growing appeal.
“In the current calendar year, our expectations are soaring even higher. We have already exceeded last year’s foreign tourist arrivals by a significant margin,” Shah revealed.
For the remainder of the year, the numbers are expected to grow at a faster pace, he added.
Domestic tourism, too, has shown impressive resilience and growth. Abid Shah pointed out, “Our domestic arrivals this year are on track to surpass last year’s figures. We’ve experienced consistently high occupancy rates throughout the year, and this is due to the unique appeal of Jammu and Kashmir in the tourism landscape.”
While the G20 Tourism Working Group meeting, hosted in Kashmir during the India’s Presidency this year acted as a catalyst for the region’s tourism sector, Shah asserted that it also has contributed in many ways to bringing Jammu and Kashmir and its tourism to the global tourism map.
Speaking about the tourism sector’s prime importance, Shah stated that it is the backbone of J&K’s economy. It contributes about 7.4 per cent of the GSDP of J&K, giving 1 million jobs directly and indirectly. The impact, he said, extends far beyond numbers, reaching into the livelihoods of countless individuals and the broader economic landscape.
“In the next five years, we aim to elevate our tourism contribution to 10 per cent of the GSDP. Achieving this would not only catalyse the local economy but also generate millions of jobs,” he added.
Addressing the aspect of connectivity, Shah underscored the existing road and air links and the anticipation of railway connectivity in the near future, extending the existing railway network from Jammu to the Kashmir Valley. This, believes Shah, will lead to a further meteoric rise in domestic tourist numbers. However, this influx needs careful handling.
300 new destinations to be developed
The government has taken a series of policy initiatives, primarily focused on sustainability in tourism. “Given Jammu and Kashmir’s status as a Himalayan ecology and a biodiversity hotspot, we are now focused on promoting sustainable tourism by carefully addressing the carrying capacity of various destinations. Therefore, to ease off the burden on popular destinations, we have identified 75 offbeat destinations, including Wadwan, Basholi, Baraderi, Basantgarh, and more, and are working to promote them,” Shah explained.
The holistic approach extends to cultural sites and heritage preservation as well. Shah revealed that in total, about 300 new destinations are slated for development and promotion.
While proper infrastructure development in these destinations will take time, Shah remains optimistic. He predicts that, in the coming years, these policy initiatives will bear fruit, enriching both the tourism experience and the local economy. “Importantly, tourism has now officially been granted the status of an industry in Jammu and Kashmir, ensuring that those wishing to explore the benefits of the sector can access subsidies and other advantages,” he informed.
Also, the heart of these initiatives lies in the promotion of homestays, a concept that resonates well with the local socio-cultural fabric and the environmental and biodiversity elements specific to the Himalayan ecology, explained Shah. “The idea behind these is to minimise the environmental footprint while ensuring a memorable experience for tourists.”
“Also, we are keen to take tourism to the people,” Shah expressed. Homestays, he added, empowers local communities and enables rural tourism to flourish. The U/T government’s efforts in this direction received recognition, with Dawar in Gurez being rated as one of the best tourism villages in India by the Ministry of Tourism recently. This initiative encourages a vibrant, self-sustaining tourism ecosystem in remote but beautiful locales.
Involving youth in tourism
Youth involvement in the tourism sector is a top priority for Jammu & Kashmir, emphasised Shah and the government is actively crafting initiatives to engage the younger generation.
The government has selected villages for homestay development in the Union Territory that will not just boost the tourism sector but also create sustainable employment opportunities for the region’s youth. Under the initiative “Mission Youth”, announced last year, these villages will undergo a transformation, igniting their potential as tourist destinations and will thereby, add to more employment opportunities for youth.
“Our focus is on actively engaging the youth in tourism. Surprisingly, we have an astounding 69 per cent of our population below the age of 35, a demographic advantage that we are determined to leverage. Without linking them to the economic opportunities within the tourism sector, we believe we cannot achieve equitable growth, provide avenues for livelihood, self-employment, and foster opportunities for personal growth,” Shah said.
Besides, Jammu and Kashmir has also embraced the concept of centre-run Yuva tourism clubs in some of the remotest locations, such as Warwan in Kishtwar, Jammu. Recently, this initiative bore fruit with a grand festival where local entrepreneurs, young boys, and girls actively participated.
“Similar events are cropping up across the region, including in the remote enclave of Bangus in Kupwara, close to the Line of Control. These initiatives, bolstered by the support of the Government of India, will ensure that the region’s youth play a central role in shaping its tourism landscape,” he added.