The Dangerous Allure of Tourism Promotion as a Post-conflict Policy in Disputed Azad Jammu and Kashmir

By Cabeiri Robinson,  JSIS Professor.

Insight from Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

In October 2005, an earthquake altered the landscape of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), a region administered by Pakistan and claimed by India. As efforts shifted from rescue and relief to long-term reconstruction, it became clear that the earthquake had transformed the social, economic, and political landscapes of AJK, too. For the international community, AJK became an acceptable terrain of engagement because the disaster was “natural.” The initial emergency response was followed by a designated post-disaster reconstruction period that began in 2006 and is slated to end in March 2014.1 Reconstruction projects funded an array of economic, social-development, and scientific initiatives, and supported an emergent private sector. However, the reconstruction addressed neither the longstanding issues that have brought the region to war repeatedly nor the impact that over seventy years as a disputed region and high-security area has had on the sociopolitical systems and legal regimes under which people in AJK live. Now, at the close of the reconstruction period, the unsustainability of an apolitical peace is becoming visible.


Figure 1. Map of earthquake zone. Photo credit: BBC, “Overview: The Quake Aftermath,” November 5, 2005.


Before 2005, Kashmiri refugees and human-rights activists had lobbied the international community for decades to turn its attention to the human impact of the Kashmir conflict. But international humanitarian organizations (with the exception of Islamic Relief) had avoided becoming directly involved with people who were displaced in AJK, because they considered their forced displacement a political issue. Four years into the War on Terror, however, international organizations saw offering aid to earthquake-affected people as an opportunity to demonstrate their will to care for Muslim victims in a time of crisis, as several aid workers told me. Formal humanitarian organizations, such as the UNHCR, ICRC, Mercy Corps, and Save the Children, arrived along with military-relief missions deployed by Turkey, China, Cuba, and the U.S.2


Figure 2. UN aid packages. Photo credit: UNHCR/M. Balouch, “Pakistan Earthquake: Braving the Winter Cold,” December 2005.


Within Pakistan, AJK became a place where Pakistani society’s capacity for self-organization and self-care were mobilized to counter images of Pakistan as a place of perpetual institutional disorder or as the object of military interventions. Activists and student volunteers organized charity drives, which brought in donations from across Pakistan and diaspora communities to support small-scale relief initiatives. Also, members of Kashmiri militant groups had declared a temporary stop to their armed activities on the Indian side of the LoC in order to engage in the labor of relief and social welfare work—what they called “humanitarian jihad” (Robinson 2013). Their relief projects were supported by Islamic charities that competed with international aid agencies for philanthropic donations from Muslim communities around the world. Over the years, many of these workers, without renouncing the possibility of return to militant politics, continued to work as social-welfare volunteers and eventually secured employment in local development NGOs.


Figure 3. Mobile Field Hospital. Photo by author, Jamaat-ul-Dawa Field Hospital in Muzaffarabad, AJK, November 2005.


As foreign aid workers came to live in places like Muzaffarabad, providing them with secure and comfortable living quarters became integral to reconstruction. Private firms repurposed residences as guesthouses—with “international standard” communications and backup power—in sectors of the city targeted for governance-building development.3 After international organizations began downsizing their missions in 2010, this network of luxury accommodations served a domestic clientele in the emergence of a local tourist industry. Pakistani aid volunteers who had first come to AJK after the earthquake organized college trips from Lahore and Karachi, or brought their families on vacation to see the positive results of Pakistani aid to Kashmiri rehabilitation projects. The Pearl Continental became a destination for Pakistani corporate retreats as well as for U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) training workshops, and students traveled to the northern valleys for adventure retreats. In response, the AJK Tourism Department staged cultural exhibitions and paragliding festivals. In fact, promoting tourism became a development goal; with the support of international non-governmental organization (INGO) livelihood grants and training conferences, over a hundred registered guesthouses opened in the Neelum Valley between 2010 and 2013. The media is framing tourism as a priority in stabilizing AJK as a transitionally post-conflict area, including crediting the tourist industry for a protest in Neelum Valley in August of 2013 in which locals objected to the threat that Punjabi militants posed to the ceasefire on the LoC.


Figure 4. Tourism Training Workshop. Photo credit: USAID Pakistan, “US Assistance for Livelihood Generation in Neelum Valley AJK,” June 4, 2013.


What the coverage missed was that the protesters were also marching in support of local (Kashmiri) militants and protesting against Pakistan for its failure to include Kashmiris in negotiations about Kashmir’s future. It also missed an embedded language of rights in people’s demands for a permanent solution to what Kashmiris call the “Kashmir Problem”:4 right of self-determination, protections against human rights violations, and the right of forcibly displaced people to return to their homes in Indian Kashmir. In fact, all of these old demands have been a part of new protests that have emerged among displaced-person advocate groups in AJK since 2010. In the words of one young refugee woman who joined a protest in Muzaffarabad, “Until the Kashmir Problem is solved for the Kashmiri people, there will be no lasting peace.” Such protests intensified after January 2013, when LoC violations seemed likely to derail the 2003 Ceasefire Agreement. Indeed, Kashmiris, who have lived for more than three generations between the guns of two opposing national armies, have known for years that the so-called ceasefire is measured best not in the relative paucity of army deaths but in the numbers of continuing civilian casualties.


Figure 5. LOC village shrapnel. Photo credit: Al Jazeera/Asad Hashim, “Kashmir’s Civilians Caught in the Crossfire,” September 21, 2013.


Tourism promotion has become an explicit policy recommendation for future peacemaking efforts in Kashmir (Chari, Chandran, and Akhtar 2011). But tourism doesn’t make Kashmir safer for Kashmiris. It makes it possible for Pakistanis, especially the urban middle classes, to imagine Kashmir as a place where a longstanding conflict has ended and where demands for justice, reconciliation, and family reunification are already resolved. It makes it possible for members of the international community, be they state representatives or aid workers, to ignore Kashmiri people’s desire to be included in shaping their own political futures by conflating it with their desire for economic development. The recent reemergence of explicitly political and militant activisms should remind us that, in the end, there are no apolitical solutions to political problems.

[1] Post-disaster reconstruction funds were jointly administered by the United Nations and the AJK State Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency (SERRA), which also coordinated inter-governmental-organization (IGO) and international-non-governmental-organization (INGO) development programs.
[2] Military engagement in humanitarian emergencies has become a norm that has forced humanitarian INGOs to adjust their practices and policies (Hoffman and Hudson 2009).
[3] In the capital city of Muzaffarabad, these residences were located in sectors that had been minimally impacted by the earthquake, whereas the center city and densely inhabited old city were left with broken water and drain lines well into 2009. The luxury hotel Pearl Continental opened in 2007 followed by the rebuilt AJK National Assembly and Supreme Court buildings.
[4] The use of this term marks a rejection of the idea that the “Kashmir Dispute” is primarily a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan or that state security concerns are more important than the human security challenges faced by the people of Kashmir.

References Cited

Chari, P.R., D. Suba Chandran, and Shaheen Akhtar. 2011. “Tourism and Peacebuilding in Jammu and Kashmir.” United States Institute for Peace, Special Report 281.

Hofmann, Charles-Antoine and Laura Hudson. September 2009. “Military Responses to Natural Disasters: Last Resort or Inevitable Trend?” In, Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, No. 44.

Robinson, Cabeiri. 2013. “Postscript: And, Humanitarian Jihad.” In Body of Victim, Body of Warrior, Refugee Families and the Making of Kashmiri Jihadists. Berkeley: University of California Press. 237–242.


Cabeiri Robinson is an Associate Professor of International Studies & South Asian Studies in the University of Washington ‘s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.