JK government has launched a media blitzkrieg to promote the state as a must-visit tourism destination for globe trotters. In an interview with Kashmir Scan, the newly appointed Managing Director of JKTDC, Sarmad Hafeez, tell us about his plans to revive the fledgling tourism sector.
KS) Tell us about your academic journey, your time at Kashmir University and engagements in the state, at national and international level.
SH) I got my schooling from Burn Hall School after which I studied in SP Higher Secondary School. Then I got my law degree from Kashmir University with a gold medal and after that I got Masters in Law. Soon after completing my masters, I got a scholarship in US where I worked for short period with the group called USPRIG (a lobbying group where we would lobby for legislations which are pro-environment).
I decided to come back to Kashmir because I wanted to stay here. I never really lived the American dream. I never thought life is better anywhere else in the world than in my home place. Although the militancy was at its peak but the situation couldn’t restrain me from returning.
Soon after my return in 1992, I got inducted into the KAS and started working in the state administration. Since then I have worked in different areas and at different positions. I was state project director for RMSA and in fact I set up an office for that department since it was newly established. After that, I was posted as Deputy Commissioner Kupwara for a year, Deputy Commissioner Ganderbal for two years, Vice-Chairman LAWDA, Labour Commissioner, General Manager JKTDC for three years and Joint Director Tourism Kashmir for two years. Now I am serving as Managing Director of JKTDC.
KS) How do you approach your role as Managing Director JKTDC? What kind of challenges do you face in daily work?
SH) It is a quite a challenging job and I will explain in two points; firstly, because of the untoward situation, it becomes a challenge to attract tourists to Kashmir. Kashmir tourism is very resilient. Though people across the globe love to visit Kashmir but they get repelled by the day to day conflict in this region. Secondly, we need to build up a professional human resource in our department. You cannot play with this sector. World has changed and so has tourism sector. We must work as professionals like other tourism states and countries are doing. We need to provide best facilities like accommodation, transport and other services for tourists and that too at affordable prices.
KS) JKTDC is considered as the face of Kashmir hospitality? What are the facilities you are providing to the tourists?
SH) First of all, JKTDC has some of the finest properties in the state especially in famous resorts like Gulmarg, Sonamarg, Pahalgam, etc. In Pahalgam we have hutments where we provide best facilities for tourists. These hutments like other hutments at other places have fine ventilated rooms with proper heating arrangemnts for winter season. We have introduced catering in which person will come to you in the morning and ask you about the meals. It didn’t happen before. In Pahalgam, we have a new club which is the state of the art and has a capacity of more than 240 people with good acoustics, best sound system and high resolution screen. We have a highly sophisticated conference hall which people can avail for big conferences. Besides, we have the facility of gym and swimming pool for tourists.
KS) Is JKTDC at par with tourism department in other states of the country?
SH) Absolutely, I think JKTDC is better than most other tourism development corporations in the rest of the country. There used to be a slogan in Kashmir, ‘You come to Kashmir and we will show you the world’. It is true because we have the best tourist destinations. For example Gulmarg is like a fairyland in winter with beautiful slopes which are more than perfect for skiing. These slopes are not less in majesty than any international ski resort destination. Similarly every other place is a perfect destination.
KS) Since past few years, the situation in Kashmir has turned worst. What kind of impact it has had on your department?
SH) Obviously, as with any other tourism development corporation, whenever there are troubled times, flow of tourists reduces which has a negative impact. We are not able to achieve the full potential of this sector because of disturbed situation which has impacted tourist inflow. Sometimes you are unable to provide to tourists what they really deserve only because of untoward situation. But simultaneously we receive sufficient footfall of local tousrists in our hutments, restaurants, etc.
KS) JKTDC is running in losses, year after year. What is the problem and how much time will it take and the factors required before the corporation makes a turnaround?
SH) Losses are there but not that huge. We are not suffering huge losses. Ups and down are in every sector but we hope for a better tourist flow in future so that this sector also flourishes.
KS) What are the various initiatives the department is taking to rejuvenate the tourism influx to the state.
SH) As this time, we have less tourist flow. So we are going to utilise this time in another way. We have initiated programs for better capacity development and some training programmes to upgrade our services. This includes the training programs for chefs, service staff and housekeeping, etc. Secondly we are going to publicise our services in and outside India. We are soon going to advertise on all famous travel websites like Yatra, Make My Trip, Goibibo, etc. We are going to upgrade our restaurants with free Wi-Fi facility and other services. We have organised Kashmiri food festivals in Kashmir and are going to repeat it in some big cities of India. We are also going to introduce Chokidhani like concept in Kashmir. (Chokidhani is a famous traditional tourist destination in Rajasthan).
KS) Any message for the people associated with tourism sector in Kashmir?
SH) Kashmir tourism is resilient. It will always bounce back. We should not give up and should treat our tourists well. We should try and create better facilities. Tourists who stay here should become our ambassadors. They should carry a positive message about Kashmir and change the perception about the situation here in the minds of other people. It is only possible if you provide them a great experience.