Firdous Hassan | Jan 21, 2020 | 5 min read
On August 2, travel agency owner Mumtaz Ahmad of Baramulla had to face his darkest fear as the Indian government issued an advisory, asking tourists to leave Kashmir. After suffering heavy losses in the 2014 floods, Ahmad had pumped all his savings into his agency. However, like many others in the tourism industry, he continues to be affected by the shutdown in the Valley imposed ahead of the abrogation of the special status of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) in August 2019.
The suspension of internet facilities has affected the entire tourism sector in Kashmir. In 2019, the number of tourists visiting the region dropped to a 10-year low. Tourism is important for J&K’s economy, contributing 8% to the state’s gross domestic product. Official figures from the tourism department state that the region saw a decline of almost 60% in the number of tourists when compared with 2018 figures, with only 4,99,584 tourists visiting the newly created Union Territory in 2019.
For Ahmad, around 40 bookings got cancelled in August and September. He said these bookings could have fetched him at least Rs 5 lakh. He mentioned that he had borrowed Rs10 lakh to participate in promotional programmes to attract more tourists.
The absence of internet has affected many in the sector as they have been unable to contact tourists and clients.
The president of J&K Tourism Alliance Manzoor Ahmad Pakhtoon told Forbes India that non-availability of internet delayed the plans of nearly 2,600 tour operators to carry out promotional campaigns. He explained that the campaigns begin in November for the winter and spring season. He noted that even now, when the winter is at its peak, adventure sports in Gulmarg have no takers.
“The only thing right now the government has to do is resume internet facilities at the earliest. Many travel agents actually want to tour various cities to revive their business,” he stated.
Sector hit, jobs lost
After the government imposed curfew and suspended communication, a little more than 10,000 tourists visited the Valley in August. In September, the tourism department recorded 4,562 arrivals, increasing to 9,327 in the following month as the curfew was revoked on October 9.
Even though the number of tourists jumped to 12,086 in November, December received only 6,954 visitors despite massive campaigns to attract tourists during the holiday season. From August 5 to December 2019, tourist arrivals dropped by almost 75% when compared with the corresponding period in 2018, according to a report by J&K tourism department.
The region faced a loss of Rs17,800 crore in the 120 days after August 5, according to the Preliminary Economic Loss Assessment Report by the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries. The report mentioned that the tourism sector faced losses to the tune of Rs9,191 crore, while over 1.4 lakh people lost their jobs in the sector during the period.
Those who have been rendered jobless include the hundreds of pony walas at Gulmarg and Pahalgam, famous skiing spots.
Ghulam Ahmed, who drives a sledge during winters at Gulmarg, stated that around 70% of the 5,000 pony walas left the job, and a majority of them now work as daily-wage workers or have moved to other states for work.
The current distress has also limited the business options for many households in Dalgate and Rajbagh area of Srinagar as many had converted their houses into guest houses in 2011. Now, these guest houses accommodate students coming from faraway districts for coaching classes.
Ilham Hussain Bhat, the owner of a homestay in the Rajbagh area, stated that several households who had converted their houses into homestays are functioning as hostels for students.
Promos to boost tourism
Over the course of the last 30 years, Kashmir witnessed the highest tourist arrivals in 2012, with more than 13 lakh tourists visiting the region. Since then, the number of tourists has steadily declined, except in 2016 when tourist footfall increased by 30% (12.12 lakh tourists) even after the region witnessed unrest for over six months after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander.
The president of Kashmir Hoteliers and Restaurant Owners Federation Waheed Bazaz told Forbes India that the Centre should step in to lure back domestic tourists to Kashmir.
“It was the government, which asked tourists to vacate Kashmir last year. Now the government has to convince the same people that Kashmir is a safe place for them,” he said.
To compensate for the losses, the tourism department has expanded its promotional programmes in India and other countries. The director of the tourism department Nisar Ahmad Wani informed that over 50 programmes are in pipeline for the year.
The J&K department will participate in six travel trade fairs and 12 roadshows by the end of March, according to the publicity section of the tourism department. A senior official with the department stated that they will be participating in fairs at Chennai, Nagpur, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Kolkata and Vijayawada in January.
Further roadshows have been proposed for Hyderabad, Lucknow, Nagpur, Bhubaneswar, Pune and many other cities, he mentioned, adding that J&K tourism will be endorsed at airports and bus shelters across India.
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