SRINAGAR: The recent declaration by Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti that Agriculture and Horticulture are more important for Kashmir’s economy than Tourism has started a debate among the various stakeholders.

There are no two opinions that all types of Tourism have unlimited potential and possibilities in Kashmir. However, at the moment because of uncertain political conditions, the full realization of the state’s tourism potential is difficult. Once there is peace and Jammu and Kashmir is connected with International Air Routes, tourism could be one of the most important economic activities round the year.

The uncertainty pertains to leisure and pleasure tourism. But, the one variety of Tourism which is presently a big revenue earner is the “Active” or “Adventure” Tourism which is not directly connected to the political situation.

Some years ago, a six member team of the Mountain Access and Conservation Commission of the International Union of Alpine Associations (UIAA) completed a week-long tour of Kashmir Valley including a short trek to Mount Kolahoi in Pahalgam. The team was led by the Commission President Robert Pettigrew and included members from Britain, France, Spain, Italy, and Belgium.

The Commission is engaged in ensuring access to mountaineers to different mountain ranges throughout the world. The mandate of the Access Commission also involves conservation of mountains and preservation of the ecology of the area. This visit was and is significant in view of the adverse travel advisories on Kashmir issued by various foreign offices in Europe. When asked in a media interaction about these adverse travel advisories, Pettigrew jokingly remarked that the mountaineers do not listen to their foreign offices and are great risk takers.

Incidentally, the famous Swiss Skier Sylvain Saudan continued Heli-Skiing in Kashmir during nineties when the situation was at its worst! He got some of the richest clients from Europe and America!

Winter climbing is another possibility in Kashmir. During the cold season some of the peaks may become as difficult as the highest Himalayan peaks in summer! Cross country skiing has unlimited possibilities in the Kashmir valley. Most of these activities do not need elaborate infrastructure and if planned properly, these are environment friendly.

The requirements are easy availability of standard equipment, good maps, some trained guides, arrangements for search and rescue in case of accidents. There is no need to construct ugly concrete structures in the form of hotels and huts. At the most one may need mountain shelters which can be in the form of Gujar huts with requisite facilities for food, medicine, and heating etc.

Most of our untapped remote areas are ideally suited for the development of adventure tourism. There are also some new areas like Gurais, Tulel, Wadwan, and Bangus, which are being thrown open for tourism. It would be most useful as well as advisable to develop these areas for eco-friendly adventure tourism.

Apart from mountaineering there are many other adventure related activities which have a vast untapped potential in Kashmir. These include white water rafting, kayaking, paragliding, mountain biking, and caving.

The Tourism Department has already promoted organisation of short duration rafting trips by private agencies in Lidder and Sindh rivers. An International Rafting Competition called “Kashmir Challenge” has been organised on River Sindh. Similar world class competitions are possible in other adventure sports also.

In fact, with the revival of tourism which is at present restricted to leisure tourism, there is urgent need for the State Tourism Department to make development of adventure tourism as their main thrust area for future.

Kashmir has the possibility of becoming the future hub for adventure tourism both in summer and winter. Adventure activities are not only an excellent possibility for boosting tourism but can play an important part in personality development of our youth. All adventure sports and especially mountaineering are supposed to be an ideal means of building character, the absence of which is our perennial problem in the valley.

Unfortunately our sports authorities are paying least attention for the development of these activities among the youth at all levels. Normally development of sports should be in relation to the environment.

Austria, France, and Switzerland have produced the world’s best mountaineers and skiers. Kashmir could have done the same had our sports authorities paid attention to this aspect. The only institution which has pioneered these activities in Kashmir is the Tyndale Biscoe School. Not only was the School responsible for introducing modern education in Kashmir but also imparted leadership qualities among its students through various adventure activities. The State authorities should have followed the example of the school for introducing these activities throughout the state. On the contrary they are reported to have wound up the adventure sports wing in their Sports Directorate!

There is urgent need for including mountaineering and other adventure activities in the School Curriculum. Let us hope someone pays attention as there is still time to initiate the adventure movement. This will also give a boost to Adventure Tourism.

(Mohammad Ashraf, IAS, is a former Director General of Tourism, Jammu and Kashmir)