A successful businessman and philanthropist, Manzoor A Wangnoo believes eco-tourism can give a fillip to Kashmir’s economy provided there is a model of people’s participation in conservation, protection and commercial scale-up.
In an interview with Ziraat Times, Mr Wangnoo who leads a leading handicraft export company, hotel and group of houseboats, speaks his heart out about ways and means to protect Jammu & Kashmir’s eco-fragile environment. Excerpts:
ZT: Tell us something about yourself personal life and business career?
Manzoor Wangnoo: When I came out of the college, I was fortunate to be offered a government job. I refused it. Reason for that was that in my school and college days I was kept at one place in Srinagar’s Sonwar, which was sort of a boarding school. I wanted to be close to my family and not take up a job that could take my away from my family.
My venture into business started when a businessman neighbor offered me paper machie products to be sold to tourists. I accepted his offer and went to sell paper machie products in Shikaras. On my first day of work my sale was US 50 dollars. At that time it was a big amount. I came back and gave the money to him. He was very happy. He asked me to continue and gave me one full basket of handicraft articles. At that time, group of American tourists used to visit Kashmir. They used to go to city centre to buy handicraft items. At that point of time, Suffering Moses was the king of handicraft business. Luckily I got the same supplier who helped me in selling stuff to visitors.
When I started my business, I concentrated only on quality. I had no shop or showroom, so I used to sell handicraft items on Shikara to tourists. From 1975 I started my formal business. Then I got shops and showrooms at many places.
ZT: How do you see potential of tourism in Kashmir?
Manzoor Wangnoo: To me, tourism has a vast potential in Kashmir. It is one of the most promising tourism places that I have seen in the world. But, unfortunately, the political situation here and what all happened in the last three decades has affected it badly. There is still a long way to go.
ZT: Considering your environment conservation activities, your concern for environment, how do you see the prospects of eco-tourism in Kashmir?
Manzoor Wangnoo: I don’t think we are yet to realise the scope and meaning of eco-tourism in Kashmir. Considering our fragile ecology, we need to concentrate on eco-tourism as a key component of our tourism promotion strategy. Eco-tourism could provide jobs horizontally which is a big need in Kashmir right now. It is not only the government, it is a duty of people to build that atmosphere.
ZT: What do you think could be a starting point in that?
Manzoor Wangnoo: I would say, people’s participation… it is your job and my job. Take my organization Nigeen Lake Conservation Organization (NLCO), you can’t find a single polythene bag in Nigeen Lake today. The reason is communities’ horizontal participation has ensured a sustainable community-led eco-conservation initiative. We also tell vendors and tourists if you find a polythene bag please pick it up. We coordinated our actions with government institutions like LAWDA and SMC as well. That’s what we call people participation and by people’s participation we can introduce eco-tourism and make it successful.
ZT: Since you travel across globe, what are the key areas you think we need to improve in terms of improving quality of ecology and environment and natural products we have to offer to tourists?
Manzoor Wangnoo: Unfortunately, when we see Kashmir in tourism perspective, we are concentrating only on few areas. When I was heading Kashmir Houseboast Association, we worked very hard, the situation was conducive as well. As a result, tourist inflow increased to an extent that some tourists had to sleep on roadside due to non-availability of hotel rooms. But that boom was not sustainable because the focus was only on Pahalgam, Gulmarg, Sonamarg and Srinagar.
If you see Kashmir broadly, there are lot of places which are unexplored. I travel to various places across Kashmir and find enchanting beauty. We need to develop these places so that tourists have more places to visit. Wallah (By God), I travel places, but If there is paradise on earth it is Kashmir.
Compare this with Dubai, everything is artificial there, yet they get great number of tourists. We have to take lesson from it as they maintain their place well to attract tourists despite being bereft of natural beauty which we possess.
Lately, there have been some innovative ideas in Kashmir, like the development of the Tulip Garden. We can develop it further.
ZT: Do you think our existing policy framework is robust enough to ensure that benefits of tourism percolate to grassroots level?
Manzoor Wangnoo: Kashmir tourism can play a major role in reducing unemployment. Our unemployment ratio is alarming. There are many places in the world that have no resources except for tourism. If tourism is kept apolitical the state policy framework could be framed accordingly. And when it is apolitical there are immense opportunities in ensuring its benefits percolate to grassroots levels.
ZT: How do can we can preserve environment in Kashmir?
Manzoor Wangnoo: We need our intellectuals and thinkers to deliberate on how to preserve our environment and take concrete actions. We need to make Kashmir Polythene free. Environmental protection and conservation has to be embedded in our educational curriculum. We have to leave something for our future generation and educate them about ways to preserve it.
ZT: Any advice for young entrepreneurs who wish to make it big like you did?
Manzoor Wangnoo: Young entrepreneurs need to educate themselves, persevere and be professional. Our economic conditions are bad. If they start a venture they would face lot of challenges but they have to be brave and determined, persevere.