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Winter is coming, and Kashmir is in gloom

A group of tourists playing with snowballs at the Gulmarg ski resort in Kashmir’s Baramulla district this season. (Photo: PTI)Premium
A group of tourists playing with snowballs at the Gulmarg ski resort in Kashmir’s Baramulla district this season. (Photo: PTI)

  • Tourists flocked the union territory this year but a surge in violence is worrying businesses
  • More needs to be done to restore the confidence of both tourists and local businesses. The region’s tourist circuit has to diversify beyond Gulmarg, Sonamarg, Pahalgam and Srinagar

Snowfall began early in Kashmir this year, in the fourth week of October.

But those who hoped this would boost winter tourism in the Valley, more so with covid-19 cases across the country–and indeed the world–having declined, may be disappointed. A series of terror attacks on minorities in the first half of October has frightened away many prospective visitors. In separate instances, four migrant labourers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have been killed, apart from two teachers at a Srinagar government school and a Srinagar pharmacist. A little-known group, calling itself ‘The Resistance Front’, claimed responsibility.

Kamran Wani, a young businessman, runs Winterfell, a 50-room, four-star hotel on Boulevard Road in Srinagar. It is flanked by the Dal Lake on one side and the Zabarwan Range on the other. It’s a spectacular setting. The coffee shop in the hotel, which he started in 2016, is one of the trendiest in town, probably attracting many fans of the fantasy television series Game of Thrones—in the series, Winterfell is the capital of the kingdom of the North.

When times are peaceful, occupancy at Winterfell Hotel is usually 100% through the year. “After the fresh incidents of violence, occupancy is down by 30%," he said. Many bookings over the next two months have been cancelled, while some long-staying guests at the hotel are set to leave. “I have a couple from Bengaluru who were staying in my hotel for the last six months, making day trips to different parts of Kashmir," he added. “But now they are alarmed and want to get out as soon as possible."

It is the same story with Yaseen Tuman of Mascot Travels, whose family owns two houseboats on Srinagar’s Dal Lake, each with 10 rooms. He has been running the business since his father, Azim Tuman, passed away in 2018. “About 20-30% of our bookings over the next two months have been cancelled," he said.

Many of the 910 houseboats on Srinagar’s Dal and Nigeen lakes, where accommodation without prior booking was nearly impossible till late-September, are now partially empty. Clearly, fears of yet another downturn are back among the hospitality businesses in the Valley even though tourists are rarely the target of any political violence.

“There is no real threat to tourists in Kashmir," said Varsha Barghav, a visitor at the Dal Lake. “Not a single tourist has been attacked, let alone killed. But when there is news of others being killed, it is only natural for parents to call and urge you to return. Those planning a visit to Kashmir are also now likely to think a thousand times before leaving home."

Unlike many other tourist hotspots, Kashmir attracts visitors all the year round. Each of its four seasons, spring, summer, fall and winter, have its special charm. According to industry sources, the first eight months of 2021 saw around 200,000 tourists, with another 290,000 visiting the Vaishno Devi temple in Jammu. The per-head expenditure on a week-long Kashmir visit is estimated at around 50,000-60,000, and in total contributes 6.98% to the Union territory’s gross domestic product. About 500,000 people are said to be associated with the tourism industry, including hotel employees, houseboat employees, handicrafts makers and providers of transport and pony services.

“With the fresh violence, our earnings have started falling again, and winter package tours to the region could well be affected," said Ghulam Rasool Siah, president, Houseboat Owners’ Association.

“Our business is directly correlated to the political stability of Kashmir," said Mushtaq Chaya, president of the Mushtaq Group that runs hotels across Kashmir. “Whenever there is trouble, the tourist rush reduces. As soon as peace returns, it promptly rises."

Ups and downs

Figures bear out Chaya’s view. Until the late 1980s, Kashmir was a favourite global tourist destination, with nearly 800,000 tourists visiting it yearly in 1985-87. Once unrest and terror began in 1988-89, the number of tourists dropped immediately to 150,000-200,000, and thereafter, as violence escalated across the next five years, by nearly another 90%. It was only after the assembly elections of 1996, and the relative normalcy that followed, that annual tourist arrivals crossed the 100,000 mark again.

The attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, which involved Kashmiri militants, once more sent tourist influx in the state crashing to barely 25,000 per year, but thereafter it gradually recovered, barring the summers of discontent—in 2008 and 2010, when street protests were marked by stone pelting. In 2012, tourist arrivals crossed 1.3 million, industry sources stated.

The disastrous floods of September 2014, which caused 5,700 crore worth of damage to the erstwhile state, once more hit tourism. But the industry recovered over the next few years yet again. This upswing was rudely interrupted in August 2019 with the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, and its demotion from a state to a union territory.

Although there were no disturbances, the total clampdown and communication blackout imposed for months in anticipation of disturbances ensured that tourists stopped coming once more. Yet as before there was recovery. In 2020, nearly 480,000 tourists arrived.

Interestingly, the impact of covid-19 on Jammu and Kashmir’s tourism industry was relatively less crippling than several other parts of India. Kashmir, as of 7 November, had 3,32,911 cases and 4,440 deaths. Maharashtra, in comparison, has 66,16,762 cases so far and 1,40,372 deaths.

With many tourist hotspots across the globe closed due to the pandemic, Kashmir benefitted. Barring the times when there were complete lockdowns across the country, it saw a steady stream of tourists. The administration’s initiative of getting all workers in the tourism industry vaccinated on a priority basis has also helped. “The last 12 months have been a boom period for us after the drought of nearly a year following the abrogation," said Siah of the Houseboat Owners’ Association.

Nearly 50% of the staff that had been laid off due to the abrogation and initial lockdowns had been re-employed. “Everything was going smoothly till this (recent violence) happened," Siah added.

While local businesses are fearful and reported a drop in bookings for the months ahead, national tour operators and online travel companies are hopeful of a good winter.

“Kashmir has always been a favourite for Indians and this year has seen an unprecedented growth in our bookings, with one of our best seasons yet over the last three to four months. The recent festive season saw a surge in demand for Kashmir, starting from Dussehra/Durga Puja right through to Diwali, and we hope to see a continuum with our winter products," Madhavan Menon, managing director of Thomas Cook India Group told Mint.

The interlinkages

It is just not hotels, restaurants and tour operators that are impacted by political disturbances. The tourism industry has backward linkages with many sectors. These include makers of handicrafts, wood, chain stitch, crewel or papier-mâché, which Kashmir is famous for, and their customers are almost entirely visiting tourists.

Including those of the handicrafts segment, the tourism crash following the August 2019 abrogation led to an estimated 150,000 job losses. Large inventories, which handicraft makers had bought on credit, remained in their godowns leading to heavy losses.

Muhammad Shahid, who runs a wholesale handicrafts business in Srinagar, which he inherited from his father, supplying goods to shopping outlets in the city and even outside Kashmir, said any law-and-order disturbance disrupts his business. “It only means cancelled orders and lower sales," he said.

“Often people’s movements are restricted by the regional (authorities) because of such incidents. My workers cannot turn up, due to which I’ve had to shut down my unit temporarily," he added.

The fallout of the recent violence has revived these worries. Gulzar Ahmad Shah, owner of Shah Art Palace in Cheshmashahi, Srinagar, said that tourists have become edgy after the recent incidents. “Fewer tourists are visiting our shops, and even those who do, seem to be in a hurry to buy and get back indoors as soon as possible," he said.

Another sector impacted is the local transport industry. “Most of our vehicles have been bought on loans, which we are unable to pay back because of the cancellation of trips by tourists," said Abdul Majeed, who runs a tourist taxi and is a member of the Tourist Cab Association.

Restoring confidence

For several years now, the local administration has been making every effort to boost tourism. In 2017, it released a string of advertisements across all forms of media, one of which is a five-minute video, ‘Warmest Place on Earth’. It went viral, garnering over four million views. The Union territory also holds music and dance festivals and ‘destination events’ at popular resorts such as Sonamarg, Pahalgam and Gulmarg, and even a Mata Vaishnodevi Sangeet Sammellan. To promote winter tourism, the administration has introduced six different winter sports at Gulmarg—alpine skiing, snow cycling, sledging, all-terrain vehicle races, snow mobile races and snow tube racing.

Although Srinagar airport had acquired international level facilities years back, few international flights landed here. Things seem to be changing. On 23 October, home minister Amit Shah flagged off the inaugural flight from Srinagar to Sharjah, which will operate four times a week.

“Based on the feedback we got from foreign tourists, we have been asking the government for some time to pave the way for people from different countries to fly to Srinagar directly," said Siah of the Houseboat Owners Association.

However, industry leaders said much more can be done to boost the confidence of both the industry and tourists.

“After all the setbacks it has had to face, Kashmir’s tourism industry needs a bailout package," said Farooq Kuthoo, who heads the Travel Agents Association. “There should be some relaxation in loan repayment," he added.

Today, most tourists restrict themselves to Gulmarg, Sonamarg and Pahalgam, apart from Srinagar’s lakes and the Mughal Gardens. Kashmir has many other scenic spots without inadequate facilities for stay or travel. “The government must develop destinations such as Tosamaidan, Yusmarg, Lolab Valley, Dobijan and Doodpathri along eco-friendly lines to attract more tourists," said Kuthoo.

Some in the hospitality industry stress that stricter norms and regulations are required to stop some players from fleecing tourists—a bane that is true of many other tourist hotspots, not just in India but across the world. During the peak season, some houseboats in Srinagar charge 25,000-30,000 a night, which is hardly commensurate with the facilities offered.

Kashmir divisional commissioner Pandurang K. Pole recently held a meeting with industry stakeholders to warn them against exploiting tourists. “There should be uniform and fixed rates for services at every tourist destination," he said.

Siah of the Houseboat Owners Association denied this charge. “In the last 10 years, we have not increased rates by even 10%," he said. “Rather, we provide five-star accommodation to meet the needs of our clients."

Despite the stunning natural landscape and picturesque setting, thanks to the tribulations the region has been undergoing, the two Union territories of Jammu and Kashmir are not among the top 10 Indian states and union territories that attract the most number of domestic or international tourists. According to data from the ministry of tourism, Jammu and Kashmir ranked 19th in domestic tourist visits and 23rd in foreign visits as a percentage of overall tourists visits in 2019. Uttar Pradesh ranked No.1 in domestic visits while Tamil Nadu topped the charts in terms of foreign visits during the year.

The dip in tourist arrivals due to the violence of early October may be a temporary one, but Kashmir tourism surely needs much more support if it is to achieve its full potential.

(The writer is a journalist based in Kashmir.)

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