Biased and Hurried Travel Advisories

The Mumbai attacks of last November were still going on when a number of western governments started issuing adverse travel advisories asking their nationals to cancel all plans of visiting India without even the actual details being fully known.This ad hoc and knee jerk reaction of western countries in regard to travel to India and some other countries in this area is not a new thing. This has been happening all along and shows a typical bias and prejudice which these people hold against us. The US Government website states, “The Department of State warns U.S. citizens that there is a high threat of terrorism throughout India, and advises U.S. citizens travelling to or already in India to maintain a high level of vigilance and to take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness, especially during the end-of-year holidays until India’s Republic Day, January 26”.They have put the entire India as a terrorist threatened destination. No sane person would have the courage to travel to India after reading such a discouraging advice. The British have gone a step ahead and their website states, “There is a high threat from terrorism throughout India.Future attacks may target places frequented by Western visitors and expatriates. Security levels have been increased at major airports. Travellers should therefore expect delays and allow more time when checking in. British nationals should exercise particular caution when in the vicinity of key government installations and tourist sites, attending public events (including religious and sporting events), and in public places including hotels, airports, shopping malls, markets and on public transport”.Then they give a virtual history of terrorist incidents in different parts of the country. In case of Jammu & Kashmir, special treatment has been given. The Travel Advice in the very beginning says, “We advise against all travel to or through rural areas of Jammu and Kashmir (other than Ladakh), and all but essential travel to Srinagar. If you intend to travel to Srinagar then you should only travel there by air.Despite the best efforts of travel agents who will try to convince you that it is safe to travel to this region, increased official promotion of Kashmir as a tourist centre and improved relations between India and Pakistan, tensions remain high, particularly in Kashmir. There was widespread violence across rural and urban areas of Jammu and Kashmir in the months of July and August 2008. Curfew restrictions imposed in the Jammu region at the time have been lifted and conditions are returning to normal.There remains, however, a heightened risk of further volatile and unpredictable violence in Kashmir, including car bombs, grenade attacks, bombs on roads and shootings”. The Australian Government has straight away told its citizens to reconsider all travel to India. Their website carries the advice as, “We advise you to reconsider your need to travel to India at this time because of the very high risk of terrorist activity by terrorists and militant groups. If you do decide to travel to India, you should exercise extreme caution.”In case of Kashmir they simply ask their nationals not to travel at all! “We advise you not to travel to the state of Jammu and Kashmir (north India), other than to the Ladakh region via Manali, or by air to the regions main city of Leh, due to frequent armed clashes, terrorist activities and violent demonstrations. There is an ongoing dispute between India and neighbouring Pakistan regarding Jammu and Kashmir. Serious security problems remain in Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, as well as other parts of the state. Recent civil unrest and violent demonstrations in the state of Jammu and Kashmir have resulted in the deaths of dozens of people since June 2008, with the cities of Srinagar and Jammu the worst affected. Tensions remain high with the possibility of violence spreading to surrounding areas.”These sample advisories taken from the internet show how our destinations are being projected as terrorism prone spots. In view of these advisories it is difficult for group tourism to move to these places. No insurance company will cover any travel to these areas. Bulk of tourist traffic these days is group travel. As regards getting these advisories modified or removed, it is a difficult proposition. I have a personal experience in this regard with the British Foreign Office. During early 1998 I was visiting London and the then Indian High Commissioner there Mr. Salman Haider arranged my meeting with the India Desk Officer in the British Foreign Office.I explained to them that the situation was very conducive for tourists to visit Kashmir. They agreed with me but expressed helplessness in view of the 5 missing foreigners who had been kidnapped in Kashmir. According to them unless their death was certified, they could not proceed in the matter. After following the case with the State Home Department, a death certificate was issued on the basis of the report provided by the concerned Police authorities. This certificate was sent to the British Foreign Office.In spite of this they did not modify the travel advice. In fact, earlier advice had been stating that the Indian Travel Agents should not be believed even if they say situation is suitable for travel. This sentence has been omitted and modified in the present advice probably after some protest from the Indian Travel Agents Association.In this situation, it is no use trying to get western tourists to Kashmir in large numbers. Promotional efforts in western countries would be waste of time and money. It would be better for us to concentrate on alternate markets. There have never been any adverse travel advisories from any of the South East Asian, Middle Eastern, or Central Asian Countries regarding travel to India in general and to Kashmir in particular. During all the years of turmoil, Kashmir has received a regular stream of visitors from Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Malaysia.In fact, during last couple of years up market Malaysian tourists have been coming to Kashmir in appreciable numbers. For all these three regions of South East Asia, Central Asia, and Middle East Kashmir represents a short haul destination. With the airport at Srinagar getting operational soon for International flights, it would be worthwhile to concentrate on these regions and try for direct charter flights as is being done by Goa Tourism Department. They receive over 500 charters every season from different tourism generating markets.There is need for promoting Kashmir vigorously in these short haul markets. The State Tourism Department should sponsor two way FAM Tours from and to these places. Every important Travel Mart should be attended by the industry players from Jammu & Kashmir. In fact, in 2004, the then Chief Minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayed had announced through a press conference in Dubai that the State Government would set up a Travel and Trade Bureau there to vigorously promote Tourism and Trade from the Region.However, after his handing over the power, the new rulers completely forgot the commitment. There is need to revive it especially if the proposed Srinagar-Dubai direct flight starts to operate. With the success of these flights and dispersal to other regions, similar set ups can be established in Singapore and Tashkent. These will cover all the three potential markets for both tourism and trade. If we are able to put this type of Tourism Marketing Plan in action, we will have no need to bother about the Western Travel Advisories and that would be the most appropriate strategy to counter these.