SUBJECT :Eco-tourism potential in Jammu 

Author:- Ajay Khajuria

November 4, 2018: While the tourism industry continues to grow, recording a further increase of 7% to touch 1,322 million international tourist arrivals worldwide during the last one year i.e. 2017, increasing concern about its impact on the physical, socio-cultural and economic environment of destinations has lead to greater emphasis on sustainable tourism development.

In this backdrop, ecotourism has gained currency and is now one of the fastest growing segments of the economy in many parts of the world. It signifies travel to relatively remote and undisturbed natural settings where flora, fauna and cultural heritage are seen as the main attractions. Besides protection and conservation of the environment, it also involves empowerment and participation of the local communities as important beneficiaries of the tourist activity. Earnings from visitors are generally ploughed back into preserving and conserving the natural environs of the destination and enhancing the cultural integrity of the local people.

It is now being widely recognized that ecotourism, if properly envisioned, can have a substantial impact on both rural economy and poverty alleviation. Countries across various continents, e.g. Costa Rica, Kenya, Norway, Ecuador, Australia, and, closer home, Nepal have developed it as a vibrant and important segment of their respective national economies. For instance, Costa Rica has converted 26% of its total land area into National Parks, Wildlife Reserves and Protected Areas and developed this activity as an environmentally viable and sound option for contributing a significant part of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In a noteworthy resolution adopted in the year 2012 the United Nations, while recognizing that ecotourism creates significant opportunities for the conservation, protection and sustainable use of biodiversity and of natural areas, called upon its Member States to incorporate policies that optimize its economic, social, cultural and environmental outcomes, especially in the developing countries.

The Sub-Himalayan Jammu Region, bound by alluvial Plains in the South-West, with the Shivalik Range and offshoots of the lesser Himalayas comprising the middle and rimmed by the Pir Panjal Range and Kishtwar Himalaya along its North-East, is bestowed with a vast variety of natural and scenic areas. Though well known as a pilgrimage destination, it’s varied and largely untapped mountainscapes host a rich fare of flora, fauna and diverse hinter cultures which can be an eco/adventure tourist’s delight. A number of Wildlife Sanctuaries stand notified in the region and the Kishtwar High Altitude National Park is home to several rare and endangered species of mammals, like the Snow Leopard, Musk Deer, Ibex, Himalayan Tahr, Markhor, Himalayan Black bear, Brown Bear, etc. The famous Kashmir Stag ‘Hangul’ is also said to migrate to this park from Dachigam National Park in Kashmir during winters. A large variety of birds can be found across the region, which belong to many different species, including aquatic (largely migratory) birds like Mallard, Eurasian Wigeon, Bar headed Geese, Shelduck, etc. seen in the Surinsar-Mansar, Gharana, Makwal, and other Wetlands. A large number of species of butterflies also exist here. Owing to its diversified landscapes Jammu has a wide variety of plants, which includes forests comprising deodar, chir, pines and broad leaved species besides a range of other trees, shrubs, wild herbs, medicinal plants and cultivars. Other attractions comprise areas of pristine natural beauty, including high mountain peaks and glaciers; lakes including high altitude ones; conifer forests, meadows, valleys and trekking routes; rivers, mountain streams, water-falls and springs; etc. Inhabitants of the different valleys and other areas of the region also present a panorama of varied cultures including the tribal nomadic culture.

The abundant opportunities for developing ecotourism, inherent in different areas of the region, have the potential for delivering widespread positive impact on the rural economy of some of its remotest areas. Options for organizing treks are virtually unlimited which can be organized in different areas during all seasons of the year. Some prime attractions include the beautiful valleys of Wadhwan and Padder in Kishtwar which had gained popularity prior to the nineties when foreign groups starting from Kashmir would trek into these valleys to enjoy pristine natural environs. Trekking routes originating either at Chamba in Himachal Pradesh or Padam in Ladakh, crossing over the Umasi La pass and passing through the Padder Valley and Gulabgarh in Kishtwar continue to be popular with tourists. Similarly, Shakar Marg – Neel Sar – Suksar – Nand Sar and other areas adjacent to the high altitude lakes in Rajouri District; the Bani – Billawar – Banjal – Sarthal axis in Kathua district; and Bhaderwah to Kailash kund via Seoj and other locations in Doda district, where treks have intermittently been undertaken, hold great potential. With tourist infrastructure now having been developed in all these areas and the nearest airport at Jammu having a good frequency of daily flights, such trekking tours can be revived/promoted. The ‘Heritage’ trek launched in the Mongri – Pancheri – Patnitop – Sudh Mahadev area has endured as a regular feature over the past decade. While these and scores of other places in the cooler environs of the Lesser Himalayas of Jammu from Bani to Loran Mandi hold promise for organizing trekking tours in the Summer season, the treks held in Mansar – Mahore Garh area in Samba District, and other locations in the Sub-Tropical belt along the Shivaliks from Basholi to Nowshera, underscore the vast potential for promoting trekking during the Winter months.

Likewise, while Adventure Camps are becoming popular in Sanasar and Bhaderwah where tourists engage in activities like Zip-lining, Zorbing, etc., there are immense opportunities for other nature-based recreation in the region, like Guided Nature Walks, Wildlife Safaris, Biking, Bird-watching, Photography, etc. The scope for eco-friendly adventure activities like Para-gliding, Skiing, Mountain Biking, Rock-Climbing, Rappelling, Mountaineering, River-Rafting, Kayaking and Canoeing, etc. also hold great promise. In fact, river-rafting in the Chenab near Reasi has picked up on a regular basis, and other sporadic activities like paragliding at Pancheri, Sanasar and Bhaderwah; skiing at Madhaatop, Patnitop and Bhaderwah; mountain biking in the hills around Bhaderwah, Udhampur and Jammu and, the Kayaking Competition held in Mansar Lake have highlighted the existing potential for these adventure activities. Ken Warren, an expert of international fame from USA, who undertook an expedition from Kishtwar to Ramban in 1988, found the upstream stretches of Chenab to be amongst the most challenging for White Water Rafting in the World.

While the potential exists, developing ecotourism requires that formal mechanisms are put in place to effectively safeguard against the possible negative impact of the proposed tourist activities upon the environment. It is also essential to involve the local communities in these activities as one of the primary stakeholders, as tourists expect to see ecotourism as a sustainable practice and, besides acquiring new knowledge and experience, they want to ensure that their visit also has a positive impact on the local community and natural resources. Any impression of ‘green-washing’, therefore, can bring the destination/s to disrepute, with disastrous effects on tourist arrivals. This would require formulation of stringent policies across a number of public services, so as to permit a new balance of social forces to meet the needs and aspirations of the host communities, as also the demands of the tourists and the industry, while at the same time safeguarding the environmental resource base. A partnership of Public Service Departments/Agencies concerned, therefore, need to make a concerted and coordinated effort to develop and implement ecotourism with participation of all stakeholders including industry players, voluntary agencies and local communities concerned.

The need of the hour is to take a lead and institutionalize a dedicated framework for a synchronised approach by departments concerned in the Region with defined objectives like, in the first instance, identifying and assessing, comprehensively, the total potential for developing and promoting ecotourism in its different areas and determining the carrying capacity for each identified destination. Then, taking concrete steps to put in place the mechanisms for training and educating the local communities to empower them to participate as direct beneficiaries of the tourist activity, while protecting and preserving their traditional habitat and cultures at the same time. And, not the least, formulating and implementing effective strategies to generate tourist traffic to these areas. This will serve to yield sustainable economic, social, cultural and environmental benefits to populations in the far flung areas besides giving the Region its own place of pride that it deserves.

(The author is former KAS Officer)