Tourism and Peacebuilding

Covid-19 and Tourism in AJK

14th September 2020 | Prof. Dr. Shaheen Akhtar, Deptt. of IR, NDU
During the past two years, tourism in Azad Jammu and Kashmir has greatly suffered due to the escalation of tension on the Line of Control (LoC), in the wake of abrogation of Article 370 by the Indian Government in August 2019 and Covid -19 that also coincided with the tourism season. The tourism sector is playing an important role in AJK economy. The estimated losses suffered by tourism sector in the first 3 months of Covid-19 lockdown were Rs. 1 billion which now stands around Rs. 3 billion. Officially, in 614 hotels alone, 12,500 workers were laid off while 300 tour operators were directly affected. In the Neelum Valley which is a leading tourist destination in the region, about 25,000 families were affected by the damaging impact of Covid-19 on tourism. Currently, nearly 500,000 people are directly or indirectly affiliated with this sector.

According to the hotel owners and tour operators, Covid-19 has badly damaged their livelihood and that of the workforce associated with the industry. As a corollary, their families had to face lots of hardships. They have been urging the government to provide some relief and have asked the AJK Bank to reduce the mark up on the tourism specific recovery loans.

On August 21, the AJK government decided to reopen the region for tourism after a five - month long lockdown and issued detailed SOPs for the tourism industry to ensure Covid-free environment for the tourists. Authorities have asked tour operators, owners of guest houses/hotels and restaurant proprietors to ensure that the safety measures are effectively implemented. A committee comprising local magistrate, station house officer (SHO) of police, a representative of tourism department and a representative of tourism police will ensure that SOPs are strictly observed. It has been observed that there is a lack of awareness especially on part of the people about Covid-19. This requires training of those associated with the hotel industry on Covid-19 and disinfection/safety measures that they can be undertaken to prevent the spread of this deadly virus. SOPs should be followed strictly and hygiene standards should be observed properly.

The tourism industry in AJK is growing fast. In the last couple of years, the AJK government has put in place the tourism policy framework, launched new initiatives to promote ecotourism and agro tourism, diversified tourism destinations away from the LoC, as envisaged in the tourism corridor and now, it is trying to deal with the impact of Covid-19 on the tourism industry in the region. A Tourism police has been created to facilitate the tourists and it is interesting to note that in Rawalakot, a female tourist police officer has been appointed. The Government is encouraging public-private partnership in the tourism sector. The leading businessmen in Rawalakot like Gulf and Jaboota groups need to come forward and invest in the tourism specific multipurpose projects. The AJK Board of Investment and the Tourism Department should try to create an environment conducive to investment in this sector.

There has been an intense debate going on regarding the regulatory framework for tourism in AJK and the process of involvement of all the key stakeholders ranging from the government, hospitality sector, business community and media to the civil society is in progress. A shared perspective is emerging which emphasizes on an integrated approach wherein the tourism, forests and wildlife sectors are being synergized. This is essential for developing sustainable tourism in a region which has very fragile ecosystem. There should be minimum design criteria of hotel buildings. Further, there is a great need to educate people and investors on the specifications of the wildlife. The importance of forests and wildlife should be factored in while selecting the tourist sites. Besides this, a good understanding of forest laws is essential while allocating land for tourist sites. The political parties should include in their party manifestos the agenda of the development of tourism sector. The media should also play a proactive and responsible role in promoting tourism in the region and while reporting the firing incidents on the LoC, it should not refer to the affected areas wholly as the Neelum Valley or Rawalakot, rather specify the points of these mishaps. Otherwise, it creates a sense of fear and discourages the tourists to come even to the safer areas in these regions. The views of the diaspora should also be considered in devising the tourism strategy as it can promote the heritage and identity of the region, besides enhancing the investment in this sector. Engagement of the youth in the tourism sector should be encouraged as it will help in reducing unemployment in the region.

Finally, the preservation and restoration of cultural heritage sites in various parts of AJK should be given due importance as they establish cultural connectivity between AJK and the Indian Occupied J&K. Some mapping of the heritage sites in the region has been done. Now, there is a need of looking into the state of preservation of these sites and undertaking of restoration of the sites wherever required. Strict action should be taken against any encroachment of these sites.

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