Even as ecotourism has been a buzzword for over two decades now, yet many a hot spots of tourism activity throughout the world are still grappling with ways and means of putting theory into practice. When it comes to tourism in the third world places like Kashmir, where the idea is still in its infancy -- at least in the sense that much is talked about it than done -- time is slipping fast and if corrective measures are not initiated soon, it a sure recipe for ecological and environmental disaster.
Come summers. Kashmir witnesses steady stream of tourists. Even though the numbers are in no way to the expectation and liking of the tourism players here, but even these limited tourism arrivals puts a huge pressure on existing tourism infrastructure, highlighting its abject inadequacies both in terms of quality and quantity. Take, for instance, the lodging facilities for tourists – hotels, guest-houses, lodges, hutments, tented camps, etc. – everything is so desperately insufficient that it has triggered a proverbial rat race here. Besides the ‘hereditary’ players who have been in tourism trade for years, even other private individuals too have, as if smelled blood and are out there for a kill – trying to make money by putting together hotels and lodges, huts and other such facilities for tourists so as to cash in on this trade.
It is good to have more facilities in place here, but from the environmental and ecological point of view, the way this development is happening is a cause of worry. With complete disregard for the local ecology and environment, as also the culture and other sensitivities, hotels and huts are being constructed in ecologically fragile zones. What could be more horrible a sight than witnessing once beautiful and pristine alpine resorts like Sonamarg, Pahalgam and Gulmarg already turned into concrete jungles! Although so-called master plans and other regulatory mechanisms are very much in place, but on the ground the thumb rule is that ‘you pay and have your way’. There is absolutely no dearth of corrupt government officials and other functionaries in various agencies and departments, ever-ready to bend and break rules to facilitate the rich and the powerful. This has and is happening in Pahalgam, in Gulmarg, in Sonamarg, and now hitherto virgin resorts too are steadily being grabbed with active help and connivance of those very people about whom we are told that they are the official custodians of Kashmir’s hill and dale.
In such a situation, those talking about and nursing hopes of ecotourism here seem a bit too naïve. But then it is also true that if government wakes up to the problem and decides to put brakes on the kind of loot and scoot that is happening here in the name of tourism development, much of the damage could be stopped and still more of the looted wealth retrieved. Of course this is subject to a very strong political will, which as of now seems unavailable. However, if what happened in Uttarakhand (during flash floods few years back) is taken as a wake-up call, which is what it is, then there is a big case for planning tourism in terms of low-impact, non-consumptive and locally-oriented environments so as to maintain species and habitats - especially in eco-fragile alpine resorts in the Kashmir’s beautiful countryside.
Another major tragedy with the tourism in Kashmir is that while the governments are more worried and concerned with its quantity (numbers) as it suits their politics nationally and internationally, the trade has been given almost entirely into the hands of private tourism traders and companies. These private individuals, as even the very basic economic common sense would inform, do not see their immediate benefits (profits) in ecotourism. Although there is, and must be a communal incentive to protect the environment, maximizing the benefits in the long-run, but a private business concludes that it is in their best interest to utilize whatever is happening in the name of tourism here even beyond its sustainable level. By increasing the number of tourists, for instance, they gain all the economic benefits and from this they do not have to pay anything as the environmental cost. In the same way, these people recognize that there is no incentive to actively protect the environment. In fact this is the reason why they ‘run with the hare and hunt with the hound’ -- welcoming huge influx of people in the name of Amarnath Yatra while at the same time giving a notion that they are opposed to it for its huge environmental footprints. Unfortunately both the State government and Shri Amarnath Shrine Board too are suffering malaise of this very duplicity.