In frozen Kashmir, Dal prays for early spring of peace

In frozen Kashmir, Dal prays for early spring of peace

In frozen Kashmir, Dal prays for early spring of peace

On a chilly wintry morning, breaking frozen portions of the famed Dal Lake with his oar, boatman Mohammad Yosuf struggles to row his shikara (boat) towards the ghat (dock). As he rows the shikara, he is hoping to find some tourists.  But the number of visitors on the banks can be counted on fingers.

This doesn’t prevent him from making a regular trip to the site every day. Months of unrest in the Valley has hit him hard. “Whether there are tourists or not, I regularly turn up at my fixed ghat. My earnings in the last six months have been virtually nil, but where else can I go,” he asks.

After separatists relaxed the protest calendar some two months ago, the situation has started improving. However, the improvement has failed to restore normalcy in Kashmir. Arrival of tourists to the Valley is still to reach expected levels.

For over a month, Yosuf says, on an average he gets one turn in three days to row tourists. “Something is better than nothing. I have a family of seven members and to feed them has become difficult. First, the 2014 floods dealt a blow to tourist arrivals in Kashmir and when things were shaping up for good, the unrest in the peak summer last year dashed our hopes,” Yosuf rues. He is not the only one facing harsh times. There are nearly 2,500 Shikara owners at 60 docks in Dal Lake and a majority of them have similar stories to narrate. They say they are helpless and do not how to deal with such a situation.

“What can we do except praying to God to normalise the situation. When people in rest of the country are moving forward, we have been caught in a quagmire of Kashmir conflict,” says Mushtaq Ahmad Dar, another boatman. He says he had taken loan from a bank last year for the studies of his two children. “I took the loan with the hope that I can repay it in instalments as everyone was expecting a good tourist season.  But it didn't happen and I couldn't pay the instalments for the last six months.  I do not know how to repay the loan and the interest now. It is a distress time for everyone in Kashmir,” Dar says.

The loss of a good season’s revenue has also resulted in overdue electricity bills and pending fees of schoolchildren. However, the boatmen have not lost hope as, according to them, return of peace means rich dividends. “We faced similar situations in 2008 and 2010 but from 2011 to 2014 tourists came to Kashmir in large numbers. We hope the situation will be similar this year with return of peace ,” the boatmen said. Their hopes have been rekindled by the return of a limited number of tourists in the last one month since the separatists stopped issuing weekly protest calendars.  

 Ramesh Desai, a Gujarati businessman who came to Kashmir along with his family to enjoy the snowfall, is delighted after reaching here. “We were told by our friends that we should not travel to Kashmir as it was a danger zone. But it is really the heaven on earth and people in Kashmir are so hospitable,”  Desai said.

Asked what prompted him to visit Kashmir despite months of unrest, he says, “I had planned to visit here in winter last year but due to business commitments couldn't. When in November, I decided to make a trip to Kashmir, I was initially hesitant. But later a friend of mine, who had visited here earlier, told me that visiting Kashmir is as safe as any part of the country. And he was right.”

With normalcy gradually limping back after a five-month unrest, the tourist arrivals are slowly picking up. Director Tourism Kashmir, Mehmood Ahmad Shah, says the department along with all the stakeholders was organising various programmes for promotion of tourism in Kashmir. “We are planning to start promotional exercises again this year to counter the negative publicity of this unrest,” he says.

Aijaz Ahmad, a manager at one of the two five star hotels in Srinagar, says though the number of tourist arrivals at the moment is low, it is a positive sign for the future. “We used to be overbooked, but due to the unrest all clients had cancelled their bookings. At the moment, we have 10 rooms booked out of 130. However, with the situation improving, I hope by April tourist flow will be normal," he says.

According to an official of the  Tourism department, due to the unrest from July to December, Kashmir lost a large number of tourists. “We lost about four to five lakh tourists during these five months. The fall was greater in domestic tourist arrivals than in the number of foreign tourists,” the official said.

The official added that most of the domestic tourists arriving in Kashmir these days are from Gujarat, Maharashtra and West Bengal and the foreign tourists are mostly coming from Southeast Asian countries.

The tourism season in Kashmir in 2016 had begun on a positive note with more than 3.5 lakh tourists visiting the northern-most area of the country in the first six months. However, the unrest triggered due to the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani on July 8 dealt a blow to the hopes of people associated with tourism as almost all the bookings to Kashmir were cancelled.

Similar cancellations were witnessed in 2010 when protests erupted in Kashmir and in 2014 when the devastating floods hit the state.

According to preliminary estimates, the tourism sector suffered a loss of around Rs 3,000 crore due to the unrest, affecting livelihood of lakhs of people associated with it. However, the tourism stake holders say the normalcy like situation that is prevailing in the Valley since last two months has given them some hope. They are also elated over the recent statement by Kashmiri separatist leaders asking tourists and pilgrims to return to the Valley.

The recent improvement in situation has given a hope to the shikarawalas for an early spring of peace.

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox