It has been pointed out several times that the Airport at Srinagar erroneously called the International Airport is a practical joke being played on Kashmiris by the Indian Government. One flight to Dubai was started with great fanfare and then within six months it was taken off. It is a fact that the real high end international tourism to Kashmir can never grow without an international air connection. In the best of the times, the number of international tourists visiting Kashmir has never been more than 5% because of the add on fare from Delhi.

According to news reports, for a change, the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India itself has pointed out that Kashmir may lose its Tourism soon unless Srinagar Airport is revamped, expanded and opened to International flights. A report prepared by the Union Tourism Ministry titled ‘20 years of Perspective and Sustainable Tourism in JK’ states that “there is need for expansion of Srinagar airport, state airline service (19 routes), helicopter taxi service and developing the Srinagar Airport as an international hub of air traffic in order to connect and attract tourists from gulf countries.” The report projects 2.5 crore tourists and 34 lakh jobs in Kashmir. One would not like to agree with such fantastic figures as it would mean over-running Kashmir thereby destroying the delicate environment which in the first place is the main attraction! We have to go for sustainable tourism. The numbers which can be sustained without causing any damage to ecology and environment. However, it is also essential to aim for high-end tourism rather than go for mass budgeted tourism. Tourism is an economic activity and not a charity!

The bottlenecks in declaring Srinagar Airport as an International Airport and starting direct international flights are many. The Airport at the moment is totally under the control of the Indian Air Force. First restriction is that no foreign pilots are allowed to fly in the J & K airspace by the Defence Authorities. Only Indian pilots can use the airspace. Secondly, most of the flights coming from the west would have to use the Pakistani airspace. However, Pakistan does not allow any aircraft landing or taking off from Srinagar to use its airspace. They have to take a long detour which makes such flights uneconomical. However, the greatest bottle neck is the “National Security” phobia. A single unsuccessful militant attack on the outer security gate some years back converted the place into the world’s most guarded Airport with the maximum security hassles. In no airport in the entire world passengers and their baggage is screened more than a kilometer before the entry to the terminal building. This aspect too has been highlighted in the Government of India, Ministry of Tourism report. No doubt the US airports have now most notorious body searches and security drills but Srinagar tops all these. If the security people are so jittery about the possibility of militants sneaking in, they should install vehicle and whole body scanner at the first security gate. This will enable the genuine passengers to cross at a faster speed without any hassles.

Regarding starting of International flights, there are two choices. The first is to start charter flights of Air India (Indian aircraft being flown by Indian pilots) from Russia, Central Asian destinations like Tashkent and Tajikistan on western side and Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong on Eastern side. Incidentally, the South East Asian tourists have continued to visit Kashmir in the worst years of turmoil without any fear. Russians used to send hundreds of Charters to Goa in winter and to Turkey in summer. The closure of Turkey to Russians could give them an alternative destination of Kashmir in summer. In fact, prior to the turmoil of nineties, a large number of Russian groups had started visiting Kashmir. On the outgoing side there are many possibilities of charters to Jeddah for Umra and to Coolab in the Khatlan province of Tajikistan to pay reverence at the shrine of Shah-i-Hamadan. The Gulf flights suggested in the Government of India, Ministry of Tourism report could be via Delhi on the line of Jaipur and Amritsar flights. These flights originate from Jaipur and Amritsar but go to Gulf after an hour’s stopover at Delhi.

The report could be implemented provided someone takes a bold initiative. The only person capable of doing so is the Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has made a name in taking unconventional and dramatic initiatives. If the recent Nawaz Sharif-Modi meet is to sustain then, in spite of Pathankot a number of steps for opening up the closed barriers like the starting of international flights to Srinagar need to be taken without any reservations. Let us hope NAMO will do it again!