SRINAGAR, Oct 22: More than a week after negative advisory to Kashmir was lifted by the government, tourists visiting Kashmir valley expressed dissatisfaction over what they termed ‘halfhearted’ measures taken by the government for tourists.
A group of annoyed tourists who are staying in a houseboat at Dal Lake said they arrived here four days ago but could not enjoy as much as they wanted to. They said that they could not purchase anything as markets are closed. They added that internet blockade has added to the difficulties they confront at present.
Tapan a 16 years old boy from Maharashtra who is in Kashmir nowadays with his family, said “I really don’t enjoy, I was excited to visit Kashmir but the moment I reached here, it made me feel so bad. There is no internet in Kashmir, markets are closed, how can one enjoy under such circumstances.”
He said since they don’t have any access to internet, they cannot find places of their choice to visit besides the negative coverage on news channels is haunting them.
Madhav Lal, father of Tapan, said his family has been prodding him to go back as they have not been able to enjoy in Kashmir in view of the prevailing situation.
“As my son said, we really don’t enjoy but the way people treated us is something we had not expected given the misinformation being aired by news channels about Kashmir. We cannot purchase anything from the market nor can we avail of the internet facility. We had to wait for an hour to get internet access at Gulmarg. This is not done,” said Madhav Lal, a real estate agent.
Another family from Gurgaon Delhi complained that there are no facilities for the tourists in Kashmir “what was the fun of lifting travel advisory when internet blockade was to continue. We have hardly visited any place since our arrival in Kashmir. We cannot go to market. When we visited Gulmarg we revolved around main Gulmarg as we were asked not to move beyond security checkpoints” said Varsha.
There are as yet no signs of recovery of tourism sector ever since it took a beating days before August 5 when the government forcibly evicted tourists from the Valley and issued travel advisories.
Now two weeks since Kashmir Valley was reopened to tourists, the mood in the sector is far from normal.
“While the region recorded good tourist inflow last winter, hotel occupancy rates are still low and are struggling to go past 20%,” Rajnish Kumar, co-founder of Gurugram-based travel portal Ixigowas quoted in a Quartz report. “Issuing constant travel advisories has also hit the sector.”
“We have seen a year-on-year decrease between 25% and 30% in bookings for Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). Search enquiries have also gone down by more than 50%. The valley also missed out on the festive traffic due to cancellation of advance bookings,” said the Ixigo spokesperson.
This despite airfares to the state declining. “There was a 17-20% increase in airfares in August when the travel advisory was issued in July, however, after that, the airfares to Srinagar have decreased by 40% for travel in October-November period,” according to Ixigo. The airfares between Delhi and Srinagar in the last two months were at an all time low of about Rs 3000 or less.
Up to 174,000 tourists visited Kashmir in June, followed by 152,000, including 3,403 foreigners, in July. By September, only around 25,000 were left in the Valley, according to another report in a television news channel.
Tourism plays a crucial role in J&K’s economy. Contributing 8% to the state’s gross domestic product, it also caters to allied sectors like handicrafts, handloom, and transport. In 2017, J&K hosted over 1.2 million tourists, according to government record, according a report in Quartz.
The sector employs over a million people, directly and indirectly, according to industry estimates. However, the sector rarely flourishes as it ought to, given the state’s picturesque landscape and rich cultural heritage. Due to security tensions, J&K is not even among the top 10 domestic tourist destinations in the country.
For years, border tensions with Pakistan and high taxes have weighed heavy on tourism here, the Ixigo spokesperson said, according to the Quartz report. J&K, despite its scenic beauty, is one of the world’s most militarised zones, with India and Pakistan bickering over the Himalayan region for decades and even fighting wars.
Since the late 1980s, separatist militancy has added to the tourism industry’s woes.
What’s worse is the communications blackout imposed since August. Internet, mobile phone connections, and telephone lines were cut off fearing a massive backlash against the repealing of Article 370 of the Indian constitution which guaranteed the state’s autonomy. Though some lines have been restored since then, the state is still largely out of bounds in terms of connectivity.
This makes a revival in tourism next to impossible, residents believe.
An undeterred central government is hopeful of a turnaround, though.
It plans to launch a “Back to the Valley” programme, its first major push to boost tourism in the state since the Aug. 5 move.
As part of this, it is asking its own staff to visit the valley. In an Oct. 18 advertisement, the J&K administration asked central government employees to avail their leave travel concession (LTC) to visit the state. LTC is the travel-payout component of one’s salary.