Shaheen Akhtar is from the Pakistan-administered side of Kashmir. She is involved in discussions around intra-Kashmir trade and women, is part of the Kashmir Initiative Group (an intra-Kashmir peacebuilding platform which aims to build bridges between community perspectives and policymakers) and has written a policy brief on Institutionalising Confidence Building Measures (CBMs). She is now working on developing cross-Line of Control (LoC) tourism as a potential CBM. Shaheen undertook a fellowship on tourism and peacebuilding in 2014.
Practical steps need to be taken, so we have something to build on. We are engaging people now, and will continue to do so as we take this [cross LoC tourism] work forward, so people have ownership of this tourism and it creates confidence.
How did undertaking this fellowship impact you personally?
The fellowship really helped me to clarify my thoughts and refine my ideas professionally. It was incredibly inspiring – I was learning all the time, everywhere we went. I now have a better articulation of the relationship between tourism and peacebuilding, and a greater understanding of the development of tourism itself and the sustainability of this – which is an important angle for Kashmir. Since returning, I have also begun mentoring colleagues. Going through a professional, expert process such as this has developed my confidence in such areas.
What specifically did you gain from this fellowship?
I was able to build on previous knowledge and learn how the development of tourism has been done in other conflict areas. The visit to Northern Ireland, undertaken as part of the fellowship, was a good experience and I learnt a lot. There we saw ‘dark tourism’ – taxi tours which visit the murals on both sides and tell you about the conflict. These tours focused on positive stories with the message that the troubles are behind them. Our visit to the Lake District showed us how the community can be involved in helping to preserve an area, something we can learn lessons from. I already had an interest in the environment and how you bring the community into the management process, so I learnt different models to build on.
We developed a framework while on the fellowship, conducting analysis and mapping of potential stakeholders – from members of the community to government officials. Through this, we considered who should be part of the development of the tourism sector.
How have you applied what you learnt to your work?
We are now exploring how to develop cross-LoC tourism in Kashmir, as both a CBM and a means to help those affected by the conflict. People living directly on the LoC have been badly affected by the conflict and there is a lot of tension in these areas.
We have delivered workshops and are creating discussion papers looking at all parts of Kashmir. Now, we are exploring how we can integrate peacebuilding into tourism development, management and planning and how we can do the branding for this tourism. We are looking at how to ensure this is all done sustainably to preserve Kashmir’s beautiful areas.
As well as planning, we are laying the groundwork for tourism – preparing people in hospitality, from government departments and security officials to people directly linked to tour operators. We have started training for young people in the hospitality sector, conducting peacebuilding workshops with them. It is important for them to consider the environment, how they protect the cultural heritage and how to account for conflict sensitivities. It’s vital that through these activities we are consciously contributing to peace. A lot of young people have come to the workshops from far off areas, as well as many educated women. They would like to set up their own businesses for example selling handicrafts or fruit, which we can help them to do. By directly engaging the community we can contribute to peace, stability and the empowerment of women and people who are marginalised.
Working closely with counterparts on the Indian-administered side of Kashmir is important. In Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Neelam – a region close to the LoC - is vital as it has a strong heritage. We are looking at the relationship between tourism and peacebuilding in transforming this area. Although infrastructure in the region is poor, we have had a positive reaction to discussions around the problem of access.
The political situation in the region has gone from bad to worse and there is a lot of disillusionment. However, there is already a cross-LoC working group and travel in place, so we can start with small groups of religious and package tourists if relations improve and there is a scaling down of tension. Despite things being unpredictable, one thing is clear – we should be prepared, as this tourism will provide a livelihood opportunity for many people, particularly for people who have been affected by the conflict including those in Neelam Valley, where many are already engaged in domestic tourism.