Back in 2015, a young Kashmiri researcher participated in an International Conference on Grassroots Creativity at IIM Ahmedabad. That day, Dr. Asma Bashir highlighted the unintended consequences of government schemes on Kashmiri artisans. It was just another occasion for this cultural canvasser to raise artisans’ concerns on a bigger platform.
At about the same time, her research emphasized the lack of data on artisans in J&K, proposing the creation of an ‘artisan’s inventory.’ In 2019, a survey addressing this concern was contemplated by the government. Her sustained efforts in the realm of creative tourism development, dating back to 2013, eventually received validation when Srinagar was recognized as a UNESCO Creative City for crafts in 2021.
“The increased emphasis on experiential crafts tourism aligns with the advocacy I’ve consistently championed,” says Dr. Asma, who’s working as Assistant Professor in Department of Tourism Studies, Central University of Kashmir.
“The future of cultural tourism in Kashmir holds promise, demanding a proactive approach through a well-thought-out cultural tourism policy to ensure a sustainable and balanced future for the region’s heritage.”
Voluntarily contributing to the cultural mapping of intangible cultural heritage in the Jammu region at INTACH Jammu, Dr. Asma’s current focus extends to projects promoting inclusivity within the Kashmir tourism industry. These initiatives aim to rectify existing disparities, contributing to a more equitable and sustainable tourism landscape in the region.
“Kashmir, adorned with a rich cultural tapestry, stands as a hub of art, knowledge, and traditions,” she says. “Managing these invaluable sites presents challenges despite legal safeguards under the Jammu and Kashmir Heritage Conservation and Preservation Act, 2010. While legal protection exists, the vibrancy of these sites relies on community involvement, empathetic leadership, and political will.”
While organizations like INTACH focus on restoring built heritage, a holistic approach is needed for safeguarding intangible heritage, like traditional craftsmanship, music, etc. is vital, ensuring the preservation of living traditions, she says. “Cultural tourism, while economically beneficial, requires a delicate balance to avoid trivializing local culture.”
Dr. Asma’s academic interests also lie in the area of Tourism and social inclusion, Tourism and Gender, Critical Tourism studies, Tourism and Ethics, and Entrepreneurship among others.
“Balancing growth with environmental, cultural, economic, and community well-being is a complex challenge in Kashmir,” she continues. “Environmental impacts, overcrowding, water shortage, and natural disasters in neighbouring regions serve as reminder to emphasize the need for responsible tourism practices, recognizing that the natural resources are shared between residents and tourists.”
While commendable sustainable practices exist in community-based tourism, the application of tourism policy in Jammu and Kashmir falls short, leading to greenwashing, she says. “Greenwashing in tourism is a marketing technique that makes products, activities, or policies seem more environmentally friendly than they actually are.”
In a freewheeling interview with Free Press Kashmir, Dr. Asma Bashir shares her astute academic insights on the changing nature of tourism in Kashmir, while asserting that genuine sustainability requires foundational interventions.
Dr. Asma, it’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start, could you tell our readers about your journey in the field of tourism studies and your specific areas of academic interest?
My venture into the world of tourism studies has been more of a marathon than a sprint. Choosing a career in tourism and hospitality was a deliberate decision, even though academia wasn’t my initial path. However, this choice has been a revelation, allowing me to discover my authentic voice. Initially aspiring to be a flight steward—a dream my mother wisely redirected—I’m genuinely grateful for her guidance, considering my potential clumsiness in that role. Despite this shift, my passion for tourism and hospitality persisted.
Reflecting on my time in Pune, the uniqueness of Kashmiri heritage and culture became evident, deepening my interest. Exposure to India’s cosmopolitan atmosphere further fuelled my commitment to the diverse and dynamic world of tourism. I owe much to my alma mater, Symbiosis International University, whose core philosophy, “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – the world is one family,” provided early exposure to global cultures.
In my academic journey, I initially focused on Cultural and Heritage Tourism Management. Recently, I’ve expanded my attention to tourism and gender, as well as sustainable tourism development. This exploration has allowed me to delve into the intricate relationship between tourism, culture, and sustainable development.
Could you tell our readers about the role of tourism education in the context of Kashmir and how it contributes to the region’s changing dynamics?
I advocate for an amplified focus on professional education and training quality in the tourism sector. Beyond mere job creation, there’s a need to enhance the employability of the future workforce, addressing the current academia-industry skills gap leading to dissatisfied tourists and resident communities.
In Kashmir, the current focus of tourism education leans towards employment rather than equipping individuals with versatile skills. From lifeguards, park managers, eco-guides, bird watching experts to sustainability specialists, training in various skill levels can be tailored through certificate programs, diplomas, or degrees under the NEP 2020, and at Central University of Kashmir where we are consciously working towards it.
Addressing this skills gap and providing specialized training positions, Kashmir as a destination offers not just visits but exceptional and memorable experiences. Investing in tourism education has the potential to cultivate a skilled, resilient workforce, fostering sustainable growth in the region’s tourism sector.
Your expertise includes Cultural and Heritage Tourism Management. Can you share some insights on how Kashmir’s cultural and heritage sites are managed, and the challenges they face in terms of sustainable development?
Kashmir, adorned with a rich cultural tapestry, stands as a hub of art, knowledge, and traditions. Managing these invaluable sites presents challenges despite legal safeguards under the Jammu and Kashmir Heritage Conservation and Preservation Act, 2010. While legal protection exists, the vibrancy of these sites relies on community involvement, empathetic leadership, and political will.
While organizations like INTACH focus on restoring built heritage, a holistic approach is needed for safeguarding intangible heritage, like traditional craftsmanship, music, etc. is vital, ensuring the preservation of living traditions. Cultural tourism, while economically beneficial, requires a delicate balance to avoid trivializing local culture.
Challenges arise in reconciling tourism promotion with sustainable development, exacerbated by a lack of unified vision among stakeholders. The management of cultural and heritage sites necessitates a partnership between tourism and cultural heritage management, with careful consideration for intangible cultural heritage.
Funding should be directed towards collaboration, fostering specialized skills in heritage interpretation, storytelling, and cultural intelligence. Establishing a dedicated institute for cultural and heritage management can create a skilled workforce and elevate local museums into educational hubs, attracting artists and cultural tourists.
The future of cultural tourism in Kashmir holds promise, demanding a proactive approach through a well-thought-out cultural tourism policy to ensure a sustainable and balanced future for the region’s heritage.
Sustainable tourism development is a global concern. In the context of Kashmir, what are the key challenges and opportunities for achieving sustainable tourism practices?
Balancing growth with environmental, cultural, economic, and community well-being is a complex challenge in Kashmir. Environmental impacts, overcrowding, water shortage, and natural disasters in neighbouring regions serve as reminder to emphasize the need for responsible tourism practices, recognizing that the natural resources are shared between residents and tourists.
While commendable sustainable practices exist in community-based tourism, the application of tourism policy in Jammu and Kashmir falls short, leading to greenwashing. Greenwashing in tourism is a marketing technique that makes products, activities, or policies seem more environmentally friendly than they actually are. Genuine sustainability requires foundational interventions, embracing initiatives like regenerative tourism, slow tourism, creative tourism, and agro-tourism, challenging conventional models.
Recognizing the limits to growth is crucial. Sustainability should surpass marketing ploys, fostering a tourism industry benefiting both tourists and residents. Prioritizing leisure and recreation, especially in a post-Covid world, emphasizes the need for recreational spaces enhancing mental health and well-being of hosts as well as guests.
Initiatives like the Smart city project and cycling tracks along Dal Lake show progress, contingent on resident behavioural change and sustainable public transport adoption. Otherwise, the hosts and guests will be competing for common resources creating conflicts. Education and training are pivotal for mainstreaming sustainability, addressing challenges in the tourism sector.
Balancing growth and well-being, acknowledging climate change urgency, addressing policy implementation gaps, altering tourism’s choice architecture, and emphasizing education and training should guide tourism in Kashmir.
Women’s participation in the tourism industry is an important topic. How do you envision increasing opportunities for women in the tourism sector, especially in rural areas of Kashmir?
Women constitute approximately 54% of the workforce in tourism globally. While many women are employed, managerial roles remain male-dominated and face disparities such as lower pay and job security. A holistic approach is essential, focusing on community-based development and public-private-people partnerships.
Envisioning increased opportunities for women in the tourism sector, especially in rural Kashmir, is crucial for inclusive and sustainable development. Women’s increased participation benefits both the community and the tourism industry, aligning decision-making with local needs. In conservative societies like Kashmir, collaboration with locals is crucial for evolving perspectives on women in the workforce.
Post-COVID shifts in tourism preferences, with increased demand for local, nature-bound experiences, provide opportunities. Initiatives like “Back to Village” and “Dekho Apna Desh” redirect attention to rural areas, stimulating domestic tourism demand. Rural tourism, through homestays and agro-tourism, offers low-investment entrepreneurial opportunities for women, fostering economic independence.
Embracing a women-friendly destination approach is mutually beneficial. Actively catering to women travellers’ needs differentiates Kashmir as a welcoming destination, attracting a diverse tourist base. Creating a women-friendly environment involves improving safety measures by giving more accountability and responsibility to tourist police, enhanced hygiene standards, and developing facilities tailored to female travellers’ needs.
As Kashmir gains a reputation as a women-friendly destination, there’s a positive impact on the community. Increased demand for improved civic amenities and cultural events enhances locals’ overall quality of life, creating economic opportunities beyond tourism. This approach aligns with global trends, tapping into the rising number of solo women travellers seeking unique and secure experiences, ultimately boosting tourism revenue. Fostering women’s participation in rural Kashmir demands a multifaceted strategy encompassing economic empowerment, skill development, and creating a welcoming environment for women travellers.
You’ve been working on “democratising heritage in public spaces.” Could you share insights into this project and its implications for the people of Kashmir?
Certainly! It’s an exciting opportunity collaborating with an international team in tourism studies. As the lead researcher for India, our project focuses on exploring the potential of inclusive women’s histories. We aim to evaluate market appeal, commercial viability, and educational value in developing tourism products that highlight women’s achievements. This initiative seeks to enrich heritage offerings, fostering a gender-neutral and inclusive discourse in India’s heritage sector and tourism industry. Currently, we’re in the early stages, exploring women’s histories in Kashmir to showcase their achievements in public spaces through tourism and other cultural platforms.
What recent developments have you observed in tourism education in Kashmir, and how are they shaping the future of the region’s tourism industry?
In the realm of tourism education in Jammu and Kashmir, there are notable developments at various levels. Full-fledged degree and research programs at higher education levels coexist with certificate/diploma programs in polytechnics. An encouraging stride is the integration of tourism as a vocation in school education under the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan, fostering an entrepreneurial mindset and a culture of innovation from an early age.
Evolution is evident in the concept of tourism education. While historically overshadowed by business studies in India and globally, the National Education Policy (NEP) of 2020 has outlined clear directions for tourism studies. Emphasizing skill-based education in tourism and hospitality, the NEP aims to nurture a new generation of professionals, aligning education with industry requirements, and focusing on practical skills, innovation, and global perspectives.
To bridge the skills gap in the tourism industry, particularly in higher education institutes (HEI), institutions must lead in creating a workforce prepared for the industry, emphasizing skilling and upskilling. It’s crucial for HEIs to exert positive pressure on the industry, discouraging unsustainable practices such as unpaid internships or greenwashing. Positive directions include incorporating a values-based or humanistic perspective, establishing a robust internship policy under the Department of Tourism (DoT), focusing on digital and financial skills, and fostering empathy and life skills through specialized certifications.
Could you highlight a specific case where your research and academic expertise have been applied to address a critical issue in the tourism industry in Kashmir?
In the application of my research and academic expertise, a significant case involves my collaboration with artisanal communities crafting Pashmina shawls during my MPhil. Advocating for their concerns on national and international platforms, one notable instance was at the 2015 international conference on grassroots creativity at IIM Ahmedabad. There, I highlighted the unintended consequences of schemes like MGNREGA on Kashmiri artisans, contributing to the Ahmedabad declaration.
My research also emphasized the lack of data on artisans in J&K, proposing the creation of an ‘artisan’s inventory.’ In 2019, a survey addressing this concern was contemplated by the government. My sustained efforts in the realm of creative tourism development, dating back to 2013, received validation when Srinagar was recognized as a UNESCO Creative City for crafts in 2021. The increased emphasis on experiential crafts tourism aligns with the advocacy I’ve consistently championed.
Voluntarily contributing to the cultural mapping of intangible cultural heritage in the Jammu region at INTACH Jammu, my current focus extends to projects promoting inclusivity within the Kashmir tourism industry. These initiatives aim to rectify existing disparities, contributing to a more equitable and sustainable tourism landscape in the region.
You’ve worked briefly in the hospitality sector and the social sector. How have these experiences outside academia influenced your approach to teaching and research?
Briefly working in the hospitality industry and the social sector after my Master’s degree provided me with valuable insights that have significantly influenced my approach to teaching and research. While my time in the hotel industry taught me crucial lessons in customer relations, patience, empathy, and working under pressure, it also exposed me to the objectification of women and systemic barriers preventing their advancement in managerial roles. This realization highlighted societal taboos associated with the hospitality sector.
These experiences have shaped my teaching approach, where I’m dedicated to reshaping perceptions of tourism and hospitality as meaningful careers for women. Actively engaging with students, I incorporate case studies featuring successful women entrepreneurs in the field and facilitate interactions aimed at challenging and changing the status of women in tourism. While the idea of more women choosing this career path is still evolving, the emergence of women entrepreneurs in tourism and an increasing number of female travellers indicates promising shifts in the industry.
Can you share your views on the role of tourism as a tool for social inclusion, and how can tourism initiatives in Kashmir be more inclusive?
Tourism has the potential to be a powerful tool for social inclusion, fostering diversity and providing equal opportunities. Kashmir, often referred to as a poet’s dream and a dream destination for tourists worldwide, possesses unique natural beauty. However, to stand out and truly be a paradise on earth, it must embrace inclusivity.
To enhance inclusivity in tourism initiatives in Kashmir, several measures can be implemented:
Promotion of Diversity: Kashmir’s rich cultural heritage extends beyond the dominant cultures of the Kashmir and Jammu regions. It should actively promote and include the cultures of other religious minorities, pastoral communities, Tibetans, Pashtoon communities, and others living in the peripheral areas. This diverse cultural tapestry can be integrated into the tourism map of Jammu and Kashmir.
Create Accessible Infrastructure: To ensure inclusivity, major tourist sites should undergo upgrades to become wheelchair-accessible, accommodating individuals with mobility challenges. Establishing and enforcing policies and regulations that prioritize accessibility in the tourism sector is crucial. This can include guidelines for businesses, incentives for accessibility improvements, and legal requirements for inclusion.
Community-Driven Tourism: Empowering local communities to take the lead in tourism initiatives is essential. This approach allows for the showcasing of traditional practices and cultural experiences, providing tourists with a more authentic and inclusive perspective.
Include More Women in the Workforce: Actively encouraging women’s participation in the tourism workforce through training and support is vital. By creating equal opportunities and more importantly meaningful job for women in various roles within the industry, tourism in Kashmir can become more inclusive and representative of the entire community.
Mental Well-being in Tourism: Incorporating mental health awareness programs within tourism initiatives is necessary. Recognizing and addressing the mental well-being of both tourists and those working in the industry contributes to a more supportive and inclusive tourism environment.
Promoting inter and multi- generational tourism: For example, develop special programs that strengthen the bond between grandparents and grandchildren. This could involve activities like storytelling sessions, cooking classes, or cultural exchanges designed for these specific relationships.
Collaboration with Specialized Organizations: Partnering with organizations that specialize in areas such as accessibility, climate change, women empowerment, and mental health is crucial. Collaborative efforts can provide valuable insights and expertise, ensuring that tourism initiatives are genuinely inclusive and considerate of diverse needs.
In essence, adopting these measures can transform tourism in Kashmir into a more inclusive, diverse, and enriching experience for all visitors, fostering a sense of belonging and appreciation for the region’s unique cultural tapestry.
Entrepreneurship in tourism is a topic of interest for you. How can aspiring entrepreneurs in Kashmir’s tourism sector access resources and support for their ventures?
For aspiring entrepreneurs in Kashmir’s tourism sector, accessing resources and support involves strategic networking and leveraging available opportunities. Engaging with local and regional tourism industry associations, such as the Jammu & Kashmir Tourism Alliance, and the Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Associations of India (FHRAI), and similar organisations provides valuable connections and mentorship.
Government initiatives, especially through the Jammu & Kashmir Entrepreneurship Development Institute (JKEDI), offer financial support, grants, and subsidies. Entrepreneurs should explore financing options from banks like Jammu & Kashmir Bank, which often provide specific loan schemes for tourism-related ventures.
Business incubators and accelerators focused on tourism, as well as skill development programs offered by organizations like the National Institute of Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development (NIESBUD) and the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC), provide training, mentorship, and sometimes seed funding. Various universities have business incubation centres which provide mentorship from the idea generation stage to product development. Currently an exciting opportunity namely Skill to enterprise model (STEM) has been launched by IIM Jammu and SIDBI helping youth of J&K and Ladakh to develop successful enterprises. The programme is open for registration till November 25th, 2023.
Kashmir Angel Network (KAN) is also a reliable angel investor organisation which supports the development of start-ups. Online platforms and competitions, such as YourStory and TiE (The Indus Entrepreneurs), offer exposure and access to potential investors. Collaborating with local communities and attending tourism conclaves, conferences, and events enable entrepreneurs to build relationships, enhance authenticity, and attract support.
In your view, what are the untapped opportunities for tourism development in the Kashmir region that could benefit both the local economy and tourism sector?
Yes, there are several untapped opportunities for tourism development that can simultaneously benefit the local economy and the tourism sector. Let me highlight a few:
Health and Wellness Tourism: We can develop spa resorts and wellness retreats to leverage serene landscapes, attracting longer-stay tourists and contributing to the local economy through hospitality and wellness services.
Educational Tourism: We can create immersive learning experiences at historical sites, engage youth through cultural exchanges, and foster educational tourism by developing youth hostels and collaborating with educational institutions.
Archaeological Tourism: We can promote rich historical heritage for archaeological tourism, attracting history enthusiasts and generating economic avenues through guided tours and preservation efforts.
Creative and Cultural Tourism: We can spotlight intangible heritage through festivals, workshops, and events, attracting tourists while supporting local artisans and contributing to cultural conservation.
Sports Tourism: We can promote sports activities in stunning landscapes, invest in sports infrastructure, and attract sports enthusiasts to create economic opportunities for local businesses and adventure-related services.
Agro-Tourism: We can foster sustainable hospitality through agro-tourism, supporting restaurants with local and organic food, and promoting the Farm-to-Table experience.
Film Industry Collaboration: We can partner with the regional film industry to showcase Kashmir’s landscapes, attracting attention and boosting tourism and local businesses through film-related activities.
Bleisure Niche: We can position Kashmir for Bleisure travel by combining business and leisure activities, attracting a diverse range of visitors and benefiting both corporate and tourism sectors.
MICE Tourism Focus: We can target Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions (MICE) tourism to bring economic opportunities and drive infrastructure development in the region, emphasizing the need for more convention centers.
By strategically tapping into these untapped opportunities, Kashmir has the potential to diversify its tourism portfolio, attract a broader spectrum of visitors, and stimulate economic growth within the region.
Lastly, as an expert in the field, what advice would you offer to students and young professionals aspiring to build a career in tourism studies, especially in the unique context of Kashmir?
For students and young professionals aspiring to build a career in tourism studies, especially in the unique context of Kashmir, here is some advice which emanates from personal and profession experience:
Internships with Purpose: Prioritize internships focusing on sustainability and community engagement for hands-on experience and deeper industry understanding.
Stewardship and Skills: Embrace stewardship principles, advocating for cultural preservation. Develop a diverse skill set, including digital marketing and crisis management.
Cultural Sensitivity: Cultivate cultural sensitivity and inclusivity for empathetic leadership in the diverse Kashmiri landscape.
Networking and Innovation: Actively engage with professionals, stay updated on trends, and foster an entrepreneurial mindset for innovative tourism approaches.
Adaptability and Resilience: Develop adaptability to navigate industry dynamics and resilience in facing challenges for a successful career.
Stay Informed: Keep abreast of global travel trends and local preferences, crucial for Kashmir’s tourism industry.
Volunteer for Impact: Seek volunteering opportunities in community-based tourism, showcasing commitment to responsible tourism.
Collaborate for Change: Collaborate with like-minded entities for positive change in Kashmir’s tourism, contributing to sustainable development.