There is no doubt that tourism is vulnerable to a number of pressures that can seriously hamper efforts at promoting “traffic” to destinations. Should a situation arise in which the traveler’s safety is in jeopardy, the crunch is immediately felt by all who depend upon the tourist.
Consider what happened following the riots after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Tourist traffic to Kashmir nosedived and it was several years before the situation stabilised. Kashmir’s economy took a beating. Hotels and houseboats lay vacant, taxis ran empty, the state’s famous handicrafts sector sank into a stupor, prices fell, and restauranteurs, shikhara-wallas, shop-owners and sales staff all were in a slump.
When a somewhat similar situation arose again this year, the state tourism department swung effortlessly into action to ensure that the gains of tourism did not suffer from the disaster of 1984-85. There were communal riots and political protests in some parts of Kashmir Valley, but these did not extend to most areas that tourists visit. Having experienced the devastating impact of a tourist-less season, officials were determined not to let the situation reach that stage. They reached out to the media and spread the word that the Valley was largely peaceful and that a Kashmir vacation was still possible. To counteract skepticism, the department took reporters on trips to Kashmir.
But the real coup was in taking international travel agents to Srinagar. In April, India hosted the ASTA international conference, which brought to Delhi record numbers of participants. Providing personal assurances of safety, the tourism authorities saw a group of agents to Kashmir, where they enjoyed themselves thoroughly. Upon their return, the agents became Srinagar’s ambassadors, spreading the word that Kashmir was as viable a destination as ever.
The department also went to town with its own advertisement campaign to directly reassure potential tourists. Enough was at stake that it spent large amounts to splash advertisements in all available media. The advertisement copy itself could have been more hard-hitting but it got the message across. Tourists began arriving by the plane-loads. Flights to Srinagar are now sold out and extra aircraft and trains are regularly pressed into service.
While the number of foreign tourists has remained steady, more domestic travelers have visited the Valley so far this year than during the same period in 1988. What had all the makings of a disastrous season was averted by tourism officials who were able to deal creatively and quickly with the crisis even as it developed.
Kishore Singh is Executive Editor of DESTINATION INDIA.