The six-month-long lockdown following reading down of Article 370 on August 5, 2019 and the pandemic of 2020 battered the tourism industry in Kashmir. But this winter after a heavy snowfall the tourism industry has started to revive, much to people’s respite whose livelihood is dependent on it.
January witnessed a flurry of domestic tourists flooding places like Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Sonmarg in larger numbers than previous winters. Gulmarg, which is a much-preferred winter destination, remained crowded and busy with unprecedented tourist footfall, promotional events, adventure tourism, Bollywood celebs visits, winter sports, and recreational activities.
Javed-ul-Rehman, Assistant Director Tourism, Gulmarg, said that they held tourism promotional activities in many parts of the country, especially after the Covid-19 lockdown was eased since October. Since December, the department also held more than 25 such activities in Kashmir including live musical events, the celebration of New Year, sports events and cultural events.
“Khelo India conducted by J&K sports council had to change dates three times because of lack of accommodation. The hotels are packed,” Rehman said. He hopes the rush continues through spring and summer.
The tourism department, however, is apprehensive about the sustaining the winter footfalls once the international travel restrictions due to the pandemic are eased.
Officials said last year, 98,757 tourists visited Gulmarg, in which 54, 821 were local, 41,562 domestic and 2374 foreigners. This year, in January alone, a total of 46383 tourists visited the place in which 27452 were locals and 18931 were domestic. No foreign tourists visited the place, according to data.
The hustle and bustle at high altitude health resorts has generated hope among people associated with tourism around Dal Lake in Srinagar whose livelihood has been worst hit due to the successive lockdowns.
Even though vacant houseboats and Shikaras are anchored on banks waiting in anticipation for tourists, the hope increases with every visitor from outside the Valley.
Kashmir’s hospitality sector has been in an uneasy state since 2014 floods, infact much earlier. It moved between hopes and hoaxes of an early revival but nothing much changed. It was a grand cocktail of weather conditions and the fragile security situation that prevented a good tourist year. Now the pandemic is the reigning crisis.
This has led the professionals to abandon the infrastructure and explore alternatives to survival. Even the hotels and the houseboats are not in a decent shape.
On a balmy February morning, Ghulam Nabi Billo stares at the silver lake from the deck of his vacant houseboat, HB City of Kashmir. He passes his wrinkled fingers through his long white-beard and shifts his tired gaze towards his neighbour’s sunken houseboat and sighs. Billo, recalls, how a few decades ago tourists visited Kashmir in large numbers; large enough to keep him busy and away from musing on his deck and witnessing the desolate silence engulfing the lake. Associated with the industry from his childhood, Billo says he has been idle since August 5, 2019. According to him, the Valley’s “economic back is broken”. But the hope hinge on this year.
“We have been through the tumultuous period of the 1990s, prolonged shutdowns but the tourism continued. But the successive lockdowns have broke our back,” Billo said.
Days before reading down of J&K’s special status the sudden communication clampdown and the adverse government advisory evacuated the Valley of tourists.
“If there are no tourists, there will be no money. Tourist industry money goes into every pocket”, Billo said adding that high spend tourists especially from foreign countries used to visit and spend a lot of money unlike domestic ones from mainland India.
As snow brought tourists dismayed Billo witnessed the sinking of his neighbour’s houseboat. A symbolic representation of Kashmir’s culture, houseboats are sinking as the owners could not afford the mandatory yearly coring of the wood.
“Coring process requires periodic plugging of the gaps between the wooden planks of the houseboat’s floor with a special, dried grass to keep the boat watertight”, said Billo. “Coring costs around Rs 50, 000 to around one lakh depending upon the size and the state of the boat. We have never received any financial support for this from anyone”. At Ghat No 7, the owner of the sunken houseboat which leads to HB Simla, Muhammad ShafiHandoo lives in a Dunga boat now. He has to feed a family of five and unlike other well-off houseboat owners; he feeds his family by driving an auto.
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