It's boom time in Kashmir

It's boom time in Kashmir

Tourists in a tulip garden in Srinagar

Nisar Ahmad, a boatman in Dal lake area in Srinagar, is happy these days. This is because the tourists from different parts of the country have started visiting Kashmir Valley. “Arrival of visitors is surely a very positive sign. With situation hopefully remaining peaceful, we are going to have a good tourist season this year,” he said.

Last year due to the civilian unrest, which saw the death of 113 persons in police and security forces actions, the tourist flow was adversely affected. As against the expected 14 lakh tourists only half of them visited the valley because of the prevailing conditions. However, the expectations of the people, associated with tourism are high this time.

Though expected arrivals for this year has been scaled down, the people in the tourism industry feel, it will not be another bad year for them. “Surely we are expecting 12 lakh visitors this year. But much will depend upon the situation. Thankfully, there are good indications right now about the situation remaining peaceful,” said Mohammad Tanveer, an official in tourism department.

These days on the busy Residency Road near Lal Chowk, the tourists can be seen busy in shopping spree during evening hours. Boulevard Road along the banks of the Dal Lake is also buzzing with a lot of activity in the evenings. The famous tourist spots like Gulmarg and Pahalgam continue to remain sought-after places among tourists. As the mercury level is rising in different parts of the country, more tourists are expected to reach Kashmir, popularly described as heaven on earth.

Tourism industry in Jammu and Kashmir generates revenue of more than Rs 3,000 crore and provides employment to five lakh people. It is not only the last year’s unrest that hit the tourism but also the 21-year-long militancy that badly affected this sector. Only 27,000 visitors visited the Valley in 2002 but the numbers crossed over six lakh in 2005. 
While the number of tourist arrival kept fluctuating in Kashmir, the religious tourism in Jammu region gained momentum. The number of pilgrims for Mata Vaishno Devi shrine almost doubled from 44 lakh in 2002 to over 82 lakh last year.

Unlike the two regions of the state, Kashmir and Jammu, the third region Ladakh receives lesser number of tourists. However, it is gaining importance as an international tourist destination with the passage of time. Over 30,000 foreign tourists visited Ladakh in 2009.

The people favour improvement in the tourism related infrastructure. “We have to tell the visitors that Kashmir is safe for them. Effective campaigns have to be launched both at the national and international levels for this purpose,” said Mohammad Yasin, a travel agent. “Violence is not Kashmir specific. Some parts of the country as also world are witnessing violence in different forms. But visitors have not stopped going there. Kashmir is comparatively safer than what it was in early 1990s. The situation has undergone a sea change since then,” he added.

The state government is in the process of making a vision document for the promotion of tourism. Experts believe that poor connectivity, lack of transport infrastructure, insufficient accommodation and underdeveloped tourist circuits have prevented the tourism sector from achieving its full growth potential.

The travel operators are unhappy with the limited time for the flight operations at Srinagar airport. The flights have to generally operate between 10 am and 5 pm and there was no night landing facilities at the airport.

“The flight operation timings need to be extended. This will help the weekend tourists from neighbouring states to visit Kashmir. No international flights operate from Srinagar and this problem has to be taken care of,” said Naseer Ahmad, a tour operator.

Abdul Rashid, an hotelier, wants the state government to take up seriously with the Centre the advisories issued by various countries to its citizens regarding visit to Kashmir.” A number of western countries have asked their nationals not to visit the Valley due to security reasons. These advisories were not withdrawn despite the improvement in the situation,” he lamented. The advisories were issued after the abduction and subsequent killing of five European tourists in Pahalgam by some unidentified militants in 1995. The militants had denied their involvement into the incident. The bodies of the abducted visitors were also not recovered.

The grenade attacks on the visitors and their buses three years back had also affected the tourist flow. Such incidents were condemned in strong words by the people from all walks of life. “The attacks on visitors send wrong signals outside. They are our guests. Kashmiris are known for their hospitality. Attacks on our guests are against our tradition,” said Irfan Ahmad, a businessman.

He added that it is a matter of satisfaction that despite the last year’s unrest not a single tourist was touched. “The visitors were treated well despites the killings and protests in the Valley.  We have to keep our traditions alive. But we also request the state government to help in maintaining peace. Any killing by men in uniform can have very adverse effect on tourism season,” said Irfan.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Chairman of the hard line faction of Hurriyat Conference, who spearheaded the last year’s unrest, said he has no intention to recreate the same situation this year. “I do not want to damage the tourist season or the education of our children. It is the government with its human rights violations disturbs the peace and forces the people to come to streets. We have no interest to see our people suffering on tourism front. But the ball lies in government’s court,” he said.

Will tourists have a safe and comfortable stay in the state? Only time will tell.