Despite visible improvement in situation, the heavy slant of violence in Kashmir reportage by Indian news channels diverted tourists to other locales this year, thus trampling on the livelihood of over two million people associated with the industry. Kashmir is set to lose another tourism season. Could it have been prevented?
On a sunny May afternoon, Abdul Qadir, a houseboat owner, sits on banks of river Jhelum, his face cupped in his both hands. The month of May means finalising the preparations for the fresh tourist season in Kashmir which starts to pick up with the onset of spring. But an anxious looking Qadir fears loss of another season this year. This could mean more hardships for his family.
“We aren’t even witnessing 10 percent of the expected tourists rush. More than two months have already passed and nothing good has happened which can reassure us that the tourism sector will not suffer again this year,” argues Qadir.
The prevailing situation in Kashmir since the killing of Hizb commander Burhan Wani in July last year and the negative coverage of the events in the Valley by TV channels have dealt a blow to Kashmir tourism sector and people like Qadir and other stakeholders are keeping their fingers crossed, despite the tourism department and authorities concerned putting all efforts to try and woo the tourists.
“The situation this time around and the media propaganda is a concern. But we are hoping that the tourists’ footfall will increase in coming days as heat wave takes over the rest of India,” asserted a top official of Kashmir tourism department.
Apart from a number of initiatives taken by the tourism department to attract tourists to the Valley the J&K government is banking on the recent high profile visit of finance ministers and officials from different states and union territories to the summer capital here as part of GST council meeting to send a positive message in and outside India about “peaceful” Kashmir.
“There are layers to the life and happenings in Kashmir. A shout-out here or a killing there doesn’t stop life. We have learnt to move on despite the hardships which make us a resilient people. The message has to go out that Kashmir is as peaceful as any part of the country,” a senior government officer said.
For the past few years, the Kashmir tourism has been only a downslide tale despite all the efforts put in by the department and authorities concerned to woo more and more tourists to the scenic valleys within the Valley of Kashmir. If the devastating deluge of the 2014 cast shadow on the tourist season the next year, the unending protests post the killing of Hizb commander Burhan Wani in July 2016 has kept the Valley on the boil, dealing a setback to the tourism industry. And as if not to spare anything, the “villainous” role played by Delhi-based TV channels did the bulldozing act by running an anti-Kashmir propaganda through bad press which created scare among tourists intending to visit Kashmir.
“Our years of efforts to bring Kashmir back on global tourism map had just started to pay off when the flood struck the Valley and since then we have been witnessing one after another setback,” said a senior official of the tourism department, referring to the deteriorating situation in the Valley.
It is in the backdrop of this deteriorating situation that the visit of the state finance ministers, whom state expects to act as ambassadors for Kashmir tourism, gains much significance.
“I share the impression which my colleagues from all over the country have that it (Kashmir) is certainly far better and more normal than the impression which media has been creating about it,” Arun Jaitley, union finance minister, who chaired 2-day GST meeting here told press conference on May 19.“All the people (Finance Ministers of different states and officials) who have come here had apprehensions due to the scene created by electronic media. But it has now changed, all the people are moving freely since yesterday (and) some of them are even staying back after the meeting.”
From vendors to houseboat owners, shikarawallas, shopkeepers, hoteliers, tour operators and people associated with handicrafts, tourism has been the main source of their livelihood. The people associated with these sectors bank on a good tourist season not only to earn day-to-day living till next season but also to make savings for the future.
But, apart from the edgy situation and negative campaign, the media has been running in some states to discourage its people from visiting Kashmir, this tourist season has thrown up more challenges. While the authorities on one hand are required to ensure there is no loss of another tourist season, people in general and those associated with the tourism directly or indirectly would have to wade through the troubled waters and hope for a good season.
“As the things stand now there is no doubt that the Kashmir tourism is down by at least 50 percent in comparison to the normal situation,” said another top official of the state tourism department. To a question, he responded if the department hadn’t conducted programs within country and abroad, the tourism picture would have been “far worse”.
A senior government officer said the impact of the devastating deluge was quite visible in 2015 when the tourist arrival got down by at least 40 percent. But the next year, he said, the then chief minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed personally led the campaign to woo the tourists from different states as well as abroad.
The results were evident when the Valley received the highest arrival of tourists of around 11 lakh by July 7, 2016, as the government was expecting a record tourist flow of over 22 lakh to surpass the figures of 13 lakh tourists which had come to Kashmir in 2013.
But the fallout of the killing of Burhan by security forces became visible when, within days of the killing, tourists fled Kashmir as killings became an order of the day and the situation worsened drastically.
“In 2016 we had all the hotels and other tourist accommodation in Kashmir booked till October. We were banking on our persistent efforts to create history as far as arrival of tourist was concerned but it didn’t happen,” said the officer.
Since July 2016 there has been no thaw in protests and its impact is quite visible on Kashmir’s tourism industry now. According to officials associated with the tourism department, the tourist arrival has fallen to 30 percent this season compared to previous season. “The media propaganda and the prevailing situation have led to this fall,” said a senior tourism officer.
This negative impact is felt by all the stakeholders associated with the tourism industry. Chairman Shikara Owners Association Wali Muhammad argued that they are receiving only 10 percent of the expected tourist rush.
“This is our peak tourism season and we are without tourists,” said Muhammad. He pointed towards the long row of Shikaras parked along the banks of Dal Lake near Ghat No 5 with the owners waiting anxiously for the tourists to go for the ride. “This long wait for tourists is our everyday tale. If the situation continues as such, we will be losing another tourist season.”
Last month, Director Tourism Mehmood Shah acknowledged about the falling tourist footfall to Kashmir while talking to a New Delhi based newspaper. “Till July last year, more than 11.2 lakh tourists had already visited Kashmir. We haven’t even got 50 percent of that as of now,” Shah said.
This worrying situation has been despite the massive campaign including road shows and camps held by the tourism department in different states of India and abroad. “There is no response despite all efforts,” said the tourism official.
According to some rough estimates, more than two million people are directly or indirectly associated with the tourism sector in Kashmir and earn their livelihood from the sector. “But today the situation is hopeless and we are feeling helpless,” said Abdul Qadir, a hotel owner in Srinagar. His hotel has 18 rooms but this season the booking has never gone beyond six rooms, even as the tourist season has already begun. “We have a single booking for next month and that explains the situation,” said Qadir.