Dr. Shaheen Akhtar | Muzaffarabad, Azad Jammu and Kashmir | June 9, 2016
A Stakeholders’ Dialogue on ‘Prospects of Tourism and peacebuilding in Kashmir’ was organized in Muzaffarabad on June 9, 2016. It was attended by relevant government officials from the Department of Tourism and Archeology, Local Government and Rural Development, academia, media, traders, tour operators and hotel service providers.
Cross-LoC tourism, especially religious tourism has emerged as a new CBM in India-Pakistan conversation on Kashmir specific CBMs since 2011. It is expected to expand cross-LoC interactions that began with travel and trade in 2005 and 2008 respectively. AJK is endowed with tremendous natural beauty, archaeological sites, religious places, and mountainous terrain, making it attractive for religious, cultural, adventure, archaeological, and recreational tourism. This provides opportunity to evolve a peace sensitive tourism framework that leads to a responsible and sustainable tourism contributing to conflict transformation by way of bridging the perceptions and changing the mindsets of communities living on both sides of the LoC as well as governments of India and Pakistan. The dialogue was aimed at engaging all the relevant stakeholders in the process so that a wholesome approach is adopted in building peace sensitive tourism across-LoC.
The participants of the dialogue identified weaknesses of the AJK tourism industry as well as appreciated the huge potential of cross-LoC tourism especially the religious tourism. They were very critical of the current state of tourism infrastructure in AJK and government apathy in prioritizing it. The road infrastructure continues to be poor and there is no proper transport facility available to the tourists. Domestic tourists are not even provided basic information about how to get to tourist attraction sites in Azad Kashmir. There is no synology on the roads. Further, unregulated influx of tourist is damaging the environment especially in the Neelum Valley. In fact, there is no tourism policy in place. It was stressed that tourism policy should not be formulated in isolation but be based upon the broader framework of trade, travel and tourism. Further, it was strongly felt that tourism should be developed as an industry which has been ignored so far. It was also felt that local communities should be made part of the process as it is linked with their livelihood and also because they are the one who actually can make it sustainable and peace sensitive.
For the promotion of religious tourism it was stressed that the government should identify potential sites, notify these sites and preserve them. AJK presents composite heritage having Muslim shrines, Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras. Historically, the people of this region have been very tolerant. Shrines of Sufis are still respected on both sides of LoC by Hindu and Muslim together. The teachings of Sufis hold a powerful message for peace and coexistence. The religious tourism has a lot of potential and there are important places such as Sharda Peeth and Ghanesh Ghati that would attract Hindus and Kashmiri pundits. Similarly, Gurdwara Ali Beg would attract the Sikh community. It was strongly urged that religious places should be declared as part of national heritage. Sharda temple and its associated sites should be protected.