Bandipora: The Jammu & Kashmir Tourism Department is holding major cultural events and pumping money to promote tourism at places like Gurez valley in Kashmir. But for a foreign tourist, the efforts are amateur as “security” parameters and miscommunication between the department and government forces establishments keeps hindering the tourist flow. Hence, many tourists recommend “not to travel to Gurez”.
Kashmir Reader talked with the few foreign tourists that happened to visit Gurez in recent years, prior to 2016 uprising, when the situation was relatively calm.
Jan Haenraets from Belgium, who is a landscape architect and professor in preservation studies, has been frequently visiting Kashmir since 2015. After his two visits to Gurez, he is disappointed with the treatment by the military personnel in the valley, and with the inconsistent advice by the tourism department. He points out poor communication as a problem.
In 2007, the travel restrictions for foreigners to Gurez were lifted. Foreign tourists were allowed to visit after obtaining a permit from police and civil administration. In 2015, the authorities decided to allow permit-free travel by domestic visitors and foreign tourists to Gurez.
Haenraets, however, believes that the information given is inconsistent and contradictory. “When visiting in 2015, the local police in Srinagar and Bandipora, said no permit was needed. I believe they changed it to permit free around 2015 when I went first. That’s also why they built the tourism shed at the check point. However, the military at the checkpoint still asked for my permit, and each time telephone calls to military officers were required from the checkpoint, to be allowed to enter the valley.
The Beligian professor believes that there should be clarity whether permits are needed or not “The tourism office in Srinagar also did not have all staff saying the same when I visited them in 2015 and 2016. Some knew permits were not needed, others did not,” he said. “Even those that believed that no permit was required told me to visit the police officers to get a confirmation. When visiting police officers in Bandipora and Srinagar, they did tell me no permit was needed, and if any issues occurred, that the military could call them. The police, in general, have been helpful, including in Gurez. The military which has understandably an important security job to do is less helpful in making it easy for tourists to visit. Hopefully, with better communication and consistent approaches, this will improve”.
“It is ridiculous how the army treats people in Gurez, once they enter,” Haenraets said.
He stresses that this should be clearly communicated at all levels including tourist bodies, police and military whether permits are required or not. The miscommunication, he says, makes it difficult for a tourist to easily move as there are constant checks and disagreements with the army over permits.
“The key problem was that even with no permit needed, the military in Gurez continues to check us everywhere. Military at checkpoints have no clue and need to call superiors, which mean much time is lost and tourists do not feel welcome.”
He says serious disagreements erupt between military and visitors to convince the military that no permit was required. “Some military officials even try blocking access while we are allowed to go there. So as a foreigner, I would not recommend it to the average foreign tourist.”
Haenraets said that his friends reported attacks while passing on their motorbikes through the Kashmir valley in summer last year. “Possibly, this was because protesters did dislike that tourists were still trying to pass through the valley during the 2016 protests. You must know that foreign governmental departments advise against travel to Kashmir. So if foreigners come, it mostly invalidates their insurance, as insurance companies probably do not have to pay out if anything happens, given the foreign government’s advice against travel to Kashmir. So few people are willing to take the risk,” he stressed.
“Even the local tourists have to face the wrath of restrictions. What is interesting is that there is a contrast between the welcoming locals in Gurez, that seem to be very happy on seeing the visitors (and the armed forces). It must be said that many police and some army people also try being welcoming. They have to do a job. But they should also try to be correct and helpful.”
He says that the J&K Tourism Department tries to be helpful at the tourist facilities. “But it feels amateur-like how the army and other agencies work to complicate visits. If we need no permit, then they should make it less of a constant harassment to local and foreigner tourists.”
Now it feels as if some military personnel try to put ‘road blocks’ in the way, everywhere you go to visit, while they should help facilitate visits. We also noticed that there is no consistency in their policies, as some military individuals just try to be extra difficult, while others will allow us to pass”.
Haenraets suggests that given the “poor briefing” to government agencies in Gurez and Kashmir, it may be easier if tourists are asked to register in Srinagar or Bandipora and are given an official permit form that clearly states “no permit is needed”. The form should explain where they tourists allowed to go. “So at all checkpoints, the tourists can show this, as proof that we can go there. If the army co-signs this, then it is clear,” he says.
Lenny Plotkin, a traveler for 11 years, is a professional documentary photographer; he documents religion and mysticism, hiking across mountains to far off places. Plotkin has travelled around 90 countries.
Plotkin, a New York resident, writes to me from the mountains of Georgia, about his travel to Gurez in May last year. “As for Gurez is considered, I can say that it’s pretty annoying to have your papers checked many times every day. And each inspection takes a long time. This seems unnecessary. Once you have the entry permit, you should be able to show it and quickly be on your way, instead of waiting around while somebody makes calls and inquiries about you.”
He finds the place “great for trekking”, as does the Director of Tourism Jammu & Kashmir, Mahmood Ahmad Shah. But Plotkin says “certainly it would be a fantastic place to hike if one had some freedom of movement”, which, even, according to the domestic tourists is very difficult given the security hassles.
Director Tourism says that his department was trying their level best to increase tourist footfall in Gurez valley, “which still remains unexplored”.
He said that the “2016 turmoil and 2014 floods affected the tourists” footfall to Kashmir and Gurez as well. “We could not hold the annual Gurez festival for four years, meant to promote tourism to the place by highlighting its culture, art, heritage and landscape.”
He said that foreigners did not come in great numbers to the place yet, and foreigners need permits to enter Gurez. Here, the director’s claims contradict the “no permit” assurance by police to Haenraets.
Director tourism agrees that there are a lots of checkpoints where even Kashmiri tourists have to face hassles. “It’s for them (forces establishments) to keep it in consideration and make it less stressful, but as of now we recommend tourists to explore the main parts of Gurez which are easily accessible,” he said.
“There are a lot of sports activities like water rafting, trekking and other things which are in consideration and will promote tourism and supplement the local economy. We are sending teams to explore viable tourism opportunities.”
But given the security hassles, the Tourism Department’s success in attracting tourists to Gurez is meagre.