ISLAMABAD: After complaints lodged against Kashmir police for misbehaving with tourists, the government of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) on Tuesday launched its newest department: A tourism police force to help travelers and nature-lovers, officials said.
The strikingly beautiful region with its forest-clad mountains is divided between India, which rules the populous Kashmir Valley and the Hindu-dominated region around Jammu city, and Pakistan, which controls a wedge of territory in the west.
Over the years, the region has become a flashpoint for violence between the two South Asian neighbors, and tourism has been badly hit by the conflict.
Now, with Pakistan’s renewed efforts to increase tourism-related revenue figures, Pakistani “Azad” Kashmir is making inroads in providing a safer and more pleasant travel experience. This has included the lifting of documentation such as the No Objection Certificates previously required for any foreign visitors looking to enter AJK. In an exclusive interview with Arab News, Kashmir’s Minister for Information and Tourism Mushtaq Minhas said that his department had received reports of police “misbehaving with tourists,” but that the new policing initiative would “provide a fresh momentum to the tourism sector in the region.”
The 120-strong tourism police force, who can be identified by their sea-green uniforms, have undergone a week of training by tourism experts. The region they will serve has a diverse landscape packed with history, from hiking and trekking sites, trout fishing in the Neelum River to the remains of a Buddhist civilization in the Sharda Valley.
Kashmir’s handicrafts, from embroidered Pashmina shawls to carpets, woodwork and silverware, are well known around the world. The region has been called “heaven for tourists.”
Pakistan was last a prominent tourist destination in the 1970s when the “hippie trail” brought Western travelers through the apricot and walnut orchards of the Swat Valley and Kashmir on their way to India and Nepal.
Since then, the security situation has reduced the number of visitors, though in recent years militant attacks have fallen sharply in the mainly Muslim country of 208 million people and a government-led effort is underway to boost tourism.
Irshad Ahmad Pirzada, director general of the Kashmir tourism department, said the region’s tourism industry has a great deal of untapped revenue potential and expects that the launch of special tourism police will attract up to 2.5 million tourists, compared to 1.5 million last year. Arab News could not independently verify that figure.
The area’s police chief, Salahuddin Khan, told Arab News that the new police force, which also included women officers, would not perform “regular” police duties but instead act as “hosts” to local and international visitors.
“From now onward, I’m sure there will be no room for any such complaints,” he said.
This week, AJK Prime Minister Raja Farooq Haider handed over the keys for six specially marked cars and 80 heavy motorcycles for the new tourism police.
As a pilot project, personnel of the force are being deployed to well-known tourist hotspots such as Muzaffarabad, Rawalakot and Neelum districts, and according to police chief Khan, eventually tourism police will be extended to the entire Pakistani Kashmir region.
“The personnel of tourism police will patrol entry points to known tourist spots. The force has strict directions to behave in a polite, respectful and composed manner with the tourists and guide them as and when required,” Khan said. There was also a helpline that tourists could call if they needed help, he said.
With 2019 declared as AJK’s “tourism year,” Tourism Minister Mushtaq Minhas said he was proud that it was Kashmir taking the lead in helping travelers and ensuring a friendly, crime-free stay.