Combined impact of unrest and Central economic policies hard to override
SRINAGAR: While the situation in Kashmir is showing no sign of normalcy, the tourism sector is going through its worst crisis in over two decades, with many hotels closing down, staff being laid off and players in the industry looking for alternative businesses or even job opportunities.
Tourism, considered the most visible asset of the Jammu and Kashmir economy, has been pushed to a cold dark corner where things are going from bad to worse as the situation in the Valley remains tense. Even with hotels offering discounts as high as 70 percent, occupancy rates are less than 5 percent at a time when the tourist season is at its fag end. In houseboats on Dal Lake, Nigeen Lake and the river Jehlum, it is as low as 1-2 percent.
Several tourism players, including hoteliers, travel agents and houseboat owners, said the ‘unresolved political issue of Kashmir leading to uncertainty’, worsened by the electronic media’s coverage of the developments, was damaging the tourism industry. “The continuous negative coverage, especially of violence – which is not the overwhelming reality in Kashmir – has stalled tourist inflow to Kashmir,” said Mushtaq Ahmad Chaya, owner of the Mushtaq Group.
“The situation is very bad, and the future is bleak. In 2009, the rush of tourists was so high that we had even to cancel bookings, and this year our hotels are empty and we are watching helplessly,” said Chaya.
He further added that the Kashmir tourist season ideally spans the 120 days from March 15 to August 15. “The Indian media has created a sense of fear among people. Today, no one is interested in coming to Kashmir despite road shows and promotional events,” Chaya said.
In J&K, five lakh people are estimated to be directly involved in the tourism industry. Businesses linked with tourism, including handicrafts, restaurants and transport, are also facing a financial crisis. Chaya believes that tourism in Kashmir had been hoping for a revival this year after the years of slow-down occasioned by the 2014 floods and the 2016 political unrest. But then there came central government policies like demonetisation in end-2016, followed by this year’s implementation of the Goods and Services Tax, whose combined impact have resulted in all hopes being scuttled for at least a year.
Ghulam Rasoon Siah, chairman of the Houseboat Owners Association, said, “Some of us have not even entertained our first customer this season till now. There is no option but to relieve the staff to manage expenses. Then you have to think of loans as well.”
There are about 925 houseboats of various classes floating on Kashmir’s lakes and rivers. Many shikara owners are now selling vegetables, while travel agents have shut their offices to save rent and are looking for other careers. They operate from home to entertain the rare booking.
The J&K government, which is spending huge money to advertise Kashmir and is trying hard to get it back on the regional and global tourist map, has not managed any notable success. It has already offered a discount of around 50 percent at all government properties but is still unable to draw attention. The government is desperate to revive tourism so as to be able to air it as a sign of normalcy in the otherwise volatile Valley.
Government figures however reveal a drastic drop in tourist inflows, to around 4.03 lakh in 2016 from 11.71 lakh in 2013 (even without accounting for Amarnath yatris). This year, industry players are estimating tourist numbers to be about half of last year’s. Stakeholders also complain that travel agents in metro cities don’t promote Kashmir as a tourism destination, due to which there is an acute decline in visitors from New Delhi, Maharashtra, Gujarat and other big cities.
Recently, the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation announced that it will provide a 50 percent rebate on tariff slabs from room bookings to full tour packages. Tourists, it was hoped, would then have the incentive to customise a Valley tour at half the original price, thus providing a much-needed flip to the tourism sector.
In another attempt to woo tourists to Kashmir, the state’s Chief Minister, who also holds the tourism portfolio, visited several states of the country with industry stakeholders and held meetings with tour operators, agents and film stars.
“We do admit that the situation was and is bad in Kashmir but we feel some invisible hand is preventing tourists from coming to the state. Even foreigners are not coming in good numbers. We have not seen this situation even in the ’90s, when militancy was at its peak,” said Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) president Mushtaq Wani. He added that occupancy in hotels and houseboats is “very, very low” and the people associated with the hospitality sector are in distress.
“We have been sitting idle for the last 400 days,” said the president of the Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Owners Federation, Javed Burza. “It’s the first time since the early 1990s that we are facing a crisis of this magnitude. Business is so low that we can’t even count percentages to make sense of these negligible numbers.”
Director Tourism, Kashmir, Mehmood Shah echoed the views of industry players about the arrival of tourists in the Valley. “It is low,” he said, and when asked about the reasons, he said: “The present situation in the Valley is grim. Encounters occur every day. The media is showing encounters and other things live on television, which deters people from coming here.”
When asked about efforts the Tourism Department is making to woo tourists, the Director said they are organising several festivals and shows. “Our Gurez festival concluded recently. We are organising more such festivals and events. We are trying our best to revive the tourism industry in Kashmir.”
The central government, under the Prime Minister’s Development Package, has sanctioned Rs 2,000 crore for the tourism sector in Jammu and Kashmir. Recently, a central team headed by Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi held meetings with officials of the J&K Tourism Department.
Not only is the state government pushing hard for the revival of the tourism sector in Kashmir to overcome the setbacks it took due to the public protests after the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani in July last year, but separatist leaders including hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani have also appealed to tourists to come to Kashmir without fear, assuring them of their guaranteed safety. But so far there has been no positive outcome, and the tourism industry continues to face crisis. As Mushtaq Ahmad Chaya asserted, “This is the worst we have ever seen.”