Between hope and despair, Gurez in Kashmir moves towards eco-friendly tourism

Between hope and despair, Gurez in Kashmir moves towards eco-friendly tourism

Between hope and despair, Gurez in Kashmir moves towards eco-friendly tourism

Amid peace efforts along the Line of Control, residents are striving to promote their culture and bring in additional tourism-induced revenue by establishing homestays and tented accommodations

Bandipora, Jammu & Kashmir: Surrounded by Himalayan glaciers and lush green valleys lies Gurez in North Kashmir’s Bandipora district, near India's Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan. Through the valley gushes different tributaries of the Kishanganga river, and on its banks reside the Shina tribal community — an ethnic group often called Dard because Gurez was part of pre-partition Dardistan.

The tribe faces certain particular hardship as the valley remains cut off from the rest of the world for about six months. From November to April, heavy snowfall blocks the sole road that links the region to the Bandipora district headquarters. This, along with the hostilities along the LoC, caused much distress to the Shina people. However, much of it's been alleviated by the ceasefire agreement between the two countries in 2021, and the area is now a favourite picnic spot for tourists.

Tourists were forbidden from visiting Gurez till recently. Although the restrictions for Indian tourists had been lifted a decade ago, multiple incidents of violence made it unsafe. Today, the region is trying to develop eco-friendly models of tourism, including new homestays and tented accommodations.

As per the 2011 Census, the total population of Gurez valley is 37,992, of which 82% are categorised under Scheduled Tribes and a majority live below the poverty line. According to the Department of Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs, 18,225 persons are registered under the BPL category in Gurez.

However, the developing ecotourism activities here are changing the economic status of the people for the better. According to Deputy Commissioner Bandipora Dr Owais (IAS), 15 homestays have been established in Gurez, so far. He further said the village has huge potential for tourism, including activities such as sightseeing, water and adventure sports that, if explored, can change the socio-economic condition of the people.

Inviting developments for tourists

The Indian Army and civil administration have been actively coordinating with the Tourism Department to guide homestay owners through the requisite processes of registration, housekeeping, upgradation of skills and waste management, to provide a wholesome experience to tourists. So far, 20 permissions have been granted to such local residents to install tented accommodations on state-owned land along the Kishanganga, at six locations identified by the civil administration, each with a capacity to accommodate 300 tourists. 

Aijaz Ahmad Dar, an unemployed postgraduate student from Dawar village, established a tent with the capacity to hold 60 tourists. This did not require much investment either — it costs between Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000 for a tent that can hold eight people; those with double-bed accommodations are priced at around Rs 8,000. He's now able to earn a substantial living.

Every year, the government celebrates Gurez Festival for a week or a fortnight, anytime between June and August to promote the valley as a tourist destination. The government invites celebrities, social media influencers, popular singers and tour and travel operators to acquaint them with the local culture, cuisine and geography.

Locals recall the cross-border shelling that took place in July 2019 in the midst of the festival. 

“There were top state officers present when the firing began,” said local resident Shamsudin Lone. “Soon, everyone fled, and those who invested in hotels couldn’t even earn back their basic expenditure.”

Today, however, those invested in tourism here have a different outlook of things. 

“We have no threat of losing business due to any disturbance,” Dar said. “Constructing a hotel costs crores. In case of ceasefire violations, we have nothing to lose; we can pack up and leave.”

The environmental flip side

Another major reason for promoting homestays and tented accommodations in Gurez is to prevent new concrete constructions, which will have their own environmental consequences.

Although the local sub-divisional administration, led by the sub-divisional magistrate, segregates solid waste, liquid waste flows directly into the Kishanganga. 

“Currently, the government seems to be least bothered about waste management; it ultimately goes into the river,” residents said. “The administration failed to install a solid waste management unit at the Bandipora district headquarters. We can’t expect to have one in a remote area like Gurez,” Shamsudin added.

The deputy commissioner of Bandipora said that with the rising influx of tourists, they were in the process of devising a plan to ensure that the waste is properly treated. He added that the Department of Rural Development was currently collecting the waste, and that locals had been provided with separate dustbins.

The residents of Gurez hold their culture close to their heart. There are more than a dozen small cultural groups in the valley. The Habba Khatoon Dramatic Club, established in 1979, is one of the oldest clubs currently headed by Fareed Ahmad Khallo, who said there were more than two dozen folk artists in the group, who performed not for money but to keep the Dard culture alive.

“The local administration, army and even hotel owners invite us to perform on occasion, or when some VIP guest is on a visit to the valley,” he said, adding that they charged for such functions. “During winters, when the whole of Gurez remains cut off from the rest of the world, we assemble at some place and perform for our own entertainment.”

A little push from the army

The people of Gurez and the army live in co-dependence in the valley. When the 80km-long Bandipora-Gurez Road shuts down due to snow, soldiers are the first responders during any exigency, including airlifting patients for treatment. Similarly, people come to the army’s aid in case of an avalanche or heavy snowfall.

This winter, soldiers stationed in Kanzalwan village near the LoC asked a local youth, Hashmatullah Lone, to rent out a few rooms of his house to tourists during the summer, said Army Commander of the 36-Rashtriya Rifles Sanjay Pangotra. Lone, who holds a postgraduate degree, had started a tea stall on the Bandipora-Gurez Highway, and the army’s suggestion helped him augment his income. He named his homestay 'Afsara Guest House', and it became the first of its kind in Gurez. In May, he hosted his first batch of tourists.

There’s more: so far, tourists had used this village only as a transit point for their journey towards Dawar and other areas. But with this initiative, the increased economic activity around Gurez has given local residents another source of income and also opened up new job opportunities for youngsters, whose main occupations were farming, serving as porters for the army or employment at local government jobs.

"Besides giving me the idea to convert four rooms of my house into guest lodgings, the army also offered me a loan of Rs 2 lakh for any repairs required, which I can return in easy instalments," Lone said. "I invested Rs 3 lakh on washrooms, a dining hall and bedding to prepare the four rooms for tourists.”

Earlier, Lone didn’t earn more than Rs 500 per day during summers selling tea. But now, he charges Rs 2,000 per room per night. The women of his family cook meals for the tourists in their home kitchen. Lone said they usually prefer local food — dal, saag and potatoes with makki ki roti — but they also provide vegetarian and non-vegetarian thalis at an extra cost. 

“All my rooms were booked every day for the past one month. I'm earning much more than I had expected,” he said, adding that he also employs three local youth, including two caterers and a cleaner.

From drivers who ferry passengers to street vendors, everyone in Gurez today earns a handsome amount during the summer, from May to October — though the business of tourism remains subservient to peace along the LoC. Now, with the hope of peace prevailing between the two countries, the 125-year-old prediction of British author Sir Walter Lawrence, that Gurez could soon become one of Kashmir’s most popular Himalayan tourist destinations, may finally come true.

Edited by Rashmi Guha Ray

All photos: Sheikh Saleem

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