PAHALGAM: Heightened security checks and the sidelining of locals from the Amarnath pilgrimage are damaging the business of hotels, restaurants, pony-wallahs, taxi drivers, and porters in Pahalgam. Locals say that elaborate security measures and the ‘Hindutvisation’ of the yatra have led to a “60 percent dip in tourism.”
“The yatra takes place in peak tourism season. The agonising security checks both at the yatra base camp and at other spots along the route have meant that tourists are avoiding Pahalgam for the entire month-and-a-half of yatra season,” said Mohammad Ishaq, owner of a hotel in Pahalgam.
Anywhere between three to four lakh pilgrims visit the Amarnath shrine via Baltal and Pahalgam route. The government-constituted Shri Amarnath Shrine Board manages the pilgrimage with assistance of government forces. A popularly advertised claim of religious harmony is of local Muslims acting as porters, cooks, pony-wallahs, and accommodation providers to the Hindu pilgrims. Muslims traditionally associated with the yatra in such roles now say they are being pushed out of the entire pilgrimage.
President of the Pahalgam hotel and guest house owners association, Abdul Rehman Ganai said that the yatra was now being conducted under a virtual siege.
“Till the late ’90s, thousands of hoteliers, tent and travel operators, and pony-wallahs earned their living from the Amarnath pilgrimage. But over the past several years the authorities have made it such a security issue that mid-level and budget-class hotels, restaurants, tent operators have fallen out of business,” Ganai said.
He said that for the past several years, pilgrims have been accommodated at the base camp itself and government-run langars provide them food at several places.
“How can an hotelier expect a booking when you keep the pilgrims under tight security at base camp? Very few pilgrims now prefer to stay and eat at hotels,” Ganai said.
The new practice of registering pilgrims in Jammu and in Srinagar has also worked against the interests of Pahalgam tourism. Earlier, the registration was done at Pahalgam and all those who wished to do the pilgrimage came to Pahalgam to register themselves.
“Very few tourists visit Pahalgam during the month-and-a-half of the yatra period. We appeal to the authorities to not put non-yatri tourists to severe security checks,” Ganai said.
General secretary of the association Mushtaq Pahalgami said that the harsh security checks and the yatra arrangements on the route were also coming in the way of students of Pahalgam. “Most of them avoid the inconvenience by not going to colleges,” he said.
“The shrine board for the past several years has been making the permission formalities for tent and pony-wallas tough and tougher every passing year. The board is trying to make it a purely Hindu affair,” Pahalgami said.