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April 2, 2001

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The Rediff Special/ Josy Joseph 'Our first priority is the tourists'
'Our first priority is the tourists'

Natalie Cole and her boyfriend, James Pidduck, were among the rare foreigners to visit Kashmir last May, a decision that was based on assurances of safety from both the British High Commission and their travel agent. Yet, Srinagar turned out to be a series of security frisks. Matters were not helped by conniving shop owners and tour operators. Someone actually offered them a room at $1000 a night. "Fortunately," says Natalie, "we declined." But, during the stay, they felt "they (travel agents) had taken advantage of two very jet-lagged, inexperienced travellers."

What proved to be the last straw were the four Kashmiri carpets they bought from Mohiuddin and Company at Rainwari for 4,700. The payment was made by credit card and was to be encashed after the couple reached England and gave their consent. Only then were the carpets to be dispatched. But the local company encashed the credit slips before the duo reached England, virtually leaving them without any money for further travel.

Soon after their return to England, the couple dashed off a letter describing their experience to the British High Commission in New Delhi. The letter included details of the breach of contract in encashing the credit card slips and described how they were "searched three times en route and stopped and searched constantly while there by an armed military."

In Srinagar, the couple felt "very vulnerable and nervous because of the army's presence and the fact that there were hardly any other Western tourists." They were "scared to leave their houseboat, especially in evenings." Though Natalie and James knew it would be impossible to take remedial action against the Army, they did have a faint hope that some kind of action would be taken against the carpet dealer.

What followed, though, exceeded their expectations!

Jammu and Kashmir's tourism department swiftly swung into action, investigated their case and took the carpet firm -- which had not only breached the contract but also inflated the price of the carpets -- to task. Invoking the unusual powers vested with the department, they recovered the excess cash paid by the tourists and imposed a fine for breach of contract. The amount came up to Rs 66,250, which was promptly dispatched to the duo.

Mansoor Ahmad, the tourism department's deputy director (enforcement), is rather pleased with the outcome of this case. "It is a testimony to the unique and stringent measures our law takes to protect the rights of tourists. I don't think this kind of justice is possible in most other parts of the country."

In fact, the Jammu and Kashmir Registration of Tourist Trade Act 1978 has many good clauses, including one that makes it compulsory for everyone involved in the tourism trade to register themselves with the government. Besides, it gives stringent powers to the police to act against those who cheat and defraud tourists visiting the state. Now, even Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Kerala are enacting legislation on similar lines.

"We have a unique system here. A dedicated team of tourist policemen are posted at every important tourist destination. A mere written complaint from a tourist is admissible evidence for prosecution under our law," says Mohammed Ashraf, director general (tourism), Jammu and Kashmir. "It is a difficult task in these times, but we always do the best we can. Every year we recover several lakh rupees from tour operators, houseboat owners, shop owners and others who have cheated tourists. Last year, we recovered over Rs 4 lakhs."

But a key section of the Act, which makes touting and pestering tourists a cognizable and non-bailable offence no longer has any application in the Valley. "Now it is difficult to even reach the airport. Earlier, though, there would be huge crowds there, ready to pounce on the tourists," says Ahmad. Several touts, in fact, had spent 15 to 20 days in jail during those days. Today, though, there are only barricades, and men in khaki outside the airport.

Then, there are certain situations which are even beyond the scope of the tourist police. They cannot do anything about the constant security checks at practically every corner of every street. In Ahmad's office, however, tourists are welcomed with a cup of kahwa (the traditional Kashmiri tea) and lent a patient ear, which takes the offence away from the frisking they are subjected to outside his chamber. After all, he heads a company of policemen who are deputed to the tourism department to look after the interests of tourists. And the police are a favourite target with suicide squads.

"If there is a complaint," says Ashraf, "the deputy director has the authority to summon and even issue arrest warrants." He has "compounding powers" which allow him to settle a dispute between a tourist and an operator without dragging the case to court. The Act also gives magisterial powers to certain officers.

Take, for example, the case of Yumi Sakashita, a Japanese student studying in France, who was cheated of thousands of dollars by the influential Dongola family (they run a travel agency in Delhi and houseboats in Srinagar). She was conned into paying exorbitant charges for houseboats rentals, among other things, during her two visits to Kashmir in 1997 and 1998.

On realising that she had been cheated, Yumi insisted on being reimbursed. Despite numerous attempts on her part, the Dongola family refused to redress her grievances. So she wrote a letter of protest to the director general, tourism, which landed in Ahmad's office. They found that she was right, so they summoned the Dongolas and made them reimburse Yumi.

"We keep getting such complaints," says Ahmed, "most of them in writing, from foreign and domestic tourists."

Some tourists, like Javed Ahmed (John) Galanos, an Australian convert to Islam, prefer more direct measures. During one of his visits to Kashmir, Galanos fell in love with a poor local woman. He had been introduced to her by the owner of the houseboat in which he was staying. He proposed and, when the 30-year-old woman accepted, he began gifting her expensive gold ornaments. He even paid a carpet-maker an advance of Rs 10,000 for a specially designed piece, which was to be collected on his next visit.

When he returned, though, there was neither bride nor carpet waiting for him. Galanos trooped into Ahmad's office. The deputy director was able to get him back his money. "Marriage and romantic gifts, though, are not in our jurisdiction," says a poker-faced Ahmad.

As Time passes by, the state government has realised the present law has some shortcomings. "Sometimes," says Ahmad, "the law looks one-sided. We have a strong law that protects the interest of the tourists, but there is no law that protects the tourism industry."

Tour operators in the Valley are increasingly complaining about how tourists and travel agents are cheating them. Recently, Smooth Sky Tours Private Limited accused a travel agency in Bombay of cheating them of Rs 3.8 lakhs. "We have no special laws to deal with such complaints," says Ashraf. "But the experts says our normal laws, such as CrPC and IPC, are well-equipped to deal with them. Our first priority is the tourists."

The irony of their job, though, lingers. Like every other aspect of normal life, tourism too has taken a severe beating in the last decade. From 7,00,000 tourists in 1988, the numbers have plummeted to a mere 1,11,000 in the year 2000. Today, most hotels are permanently occupied by paramilitary forces, almost all cinema halls have closed down, discos and bars are unknown and gardens are mostly deserted. The Valley no longer has a social life.

Yet, in a state where Constitutional guarantees have long lost their meaning, the Tourist Act continues to be strictly enforced. "If a tourist is cheated of even Rs 50," says Ahmad, "we get it back and send it to his/her doorstep."

Design: Uttam Ghosh

The Rediff Specials

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