By Sheikh Qayoom
Srinagar, July 27: With more than half of this year’s tourist season over, alarm bells are already ringing for those associated with the tourism industry in Kashmir.
“If you thought 2016 was the worst that could hit us, you are wrong. Tourism-wise, 2017 has been worse than last year. Another year like this and it is shutters down for hoteliers of the Valley,” said Aijaz Ahmad Chaya, a well-known hotel owner who has establishments in the tourist resorts of Pahalgam and Gulmarg.
The story of the average restaurant owner, tea-stall owner and those associated with tourism directly and indirectly in the Valley is little different from that of the big hoteliers.
“We would have a huge rush of tourists coming to our place for Punjabi breakfast before starting their day. That story is over for the last two years now,” said Ramesh Sharma, the owner of a dhaba (roadside eatery) in Srinagar city.
Handicraft sellers and taxi drivers here said they are already thinking of alternate livelihoods, at least for their children.
“Papier mâché has been in our blood. We have been making papier mâché products and selling these for over four generations now.
“But mine is going to be last generation in this craft. Come what may, my son will not take to the family profession,” said Showkat Ali, a craftsman living in Srinagar’s Zadibal area.
The steady decline in tourism and the devastating blow it has dealt to those associated with the sector in Kashmir is confirmed by official figures.
“Despite last year’s unrest, we had 1.1 million tourist arrivals till the end of July 2016. This year, as July draws to a close, we have less than 50 per cent of that number till now,” said a senior official of the state’s Tourism Department.
He gave a series of reasons for the alarming drop in tourist arrivals in Kashmir this spring and summer.
“Our major spring season attraction has been the Tulip Garden. This year the flowering period in the garden was cut short by rains, followed by the flood scare due to heavy spring rains.
“Most of our expected spring arrivals were cancelled because of the media, especially the electronic media, over-playing the flood scare,” said the official.
“We then had a series of events that dealt a serious blow to the industry. There was this killing of a militant commander, Sabzar. Then we had the gondola accident in Gulmarg and finally the terror attack on the Amarnath Yatris.
“These had such a depressing effect on tourists and travel operators that once, during that period, our arrivals by road dropped to zero for some time,” the official disclosed.
He said tourist arrivals by air have, however, remained unaffected.
“But the issue is that more than 90 per cent of tourists who come to Kashmir do so by road, and the uncertainty in south Kashmir areas adversely affected the road arrival of visitors,” he said.
One silver lining in the dark cloud has been that the number of Amarnath pilgrims has already crossed last year’s figure.
“We had 230,000 yatris last year and, till now, this figure has already crossed 250,000 and there are still 12 days remaining before the yatra concludes,” the official said.
The Tourism Department has also been critical of social media on which, officials say, a campaign has been under way to discourage tourism in Kashmir.
“We are trying to effectively counter this propaganda by projecting interviews of tourists who narrate their first-hand experiences while visiting the Valley,” the official said.
He also spoke of campaigns to woo tourists and conferences organised by the government to negate the propaganda against visiting Kashmir.
But, for Abdul Salam who has been trying hard to plug the leaks in his shikara (boat), this is going to be another day when he returns home to tell his wife there were no tourists at the Dal Lake.
The shikarawallah has been repeating the bad news to his family for nearly a forthright now.