SRINAGAR: In 1934, when the bullock cart was the main transport for foreigners to travel to the Kashmir Valley, New Blue Jay, a Dal Lake houseboat, served more than 40 tourists, most of them from foreign countries. Almost a century later, in 2017, when a variety of vehicles have reduced distances, the Jay houseboat has managed only twelve tourists this season. This significant drop in numbers has forced its owner to lay off permanent employees of his establishment for the first time in the last three decades of armed militancy.
“We have had dry business seasons many times, but this time is the worst of all years. Even during the 1990s, when there was armed insurgency, we still had business that managed our living costs as well as those of our employees,” said Ghulam Muhammad, the proprietor of the houseboat, which he inherited from his ancestors. His houseboat was among the first to be set up during the Maharaja’s time, in the late 1880s.
The Kashmiri houseboat used to attract a sizeable number of the Valley’s high-end tourists. It holds a unique position because of its intricate, wood-carved walls and ceilings which provide the unique experience of living on the water in cedar-panelled elegance with all the conveniences of a luxury hotel.
Muhammad had three staff members of whom one was permanent. The Blue Jay has had only 30 days of business this year, which generated an average of Rs 2,500 a day. A major chunk of this money has gone into the employees’ salaries and the houseboat’s maintenance while the rest was used for Muhammad’s own survival. Now, Muhammad said, the money is exhausted, and he must try alternative ways to earn. Because of the financial squeeze, he said, he has laid off all the houseboat’s employees and maintains it himself.
The drop in tourists began in the early 1990s when Kashmiris revolted against the Indian State. The drop was compounded by travel advisories issued by foreign countries like Britain. Tourism began to pick up again post-2010, with 2012 witnessing the most successful season of the last two decades. Then floods hit the sector once more in 2014. Their damage lasted through 2015 until June 2016, when tourism began picking up again with good numbers. In 2016, the state recorded the arrival of 1.29 million visitors, most of them low-end tourists. Since then, tourism has been badly hit.
According to Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association chairman Ghulam Rasool, financial conditions of most houseboats have been the same this year.
“Most houseboats have laid off their staff because of the financial crunch,” he said.
There are at present 932 houseboats serving tourists in the Valley. Rasool said each houseboat employs three persons on average and generates income for shikarawalas too. Since 2016, these two groups have been struggling to preserve the centuries-old sector.
Bashir Karnai, the two-time, all-India-level, award-winning Kashmiri tourist agent, gives a glimpse of how the tourism market is running dry in the Kashmir Valley. He told Kashmir Reader that until the last week of June 2016, just before the mass uprising erupted, he had managed to get nearly 250 high-end tourists from the US, Canada and New Zealand, who were supposed to arrive in August that year. After the uprising began, he diverted them to other parts of India as the situation was not conducive. Since then, he said, though he has managed to bring nearly 8,000 high-end tourists to India, only 150 agreed to travel Kashmir. “When we market Kashmir before high-end tourists, they refuse to come because of the wrong reportage of the Indian media,” he said.
Bashir himself runs two hotels in the Valley. He markets them himself. However he too has failed to lure tourists in 2017.
Rasool who runs the decades-old houseboat, Prince of Kashmir where former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi was served four days before she was assassinated, stays optimistic that tourism will pick up in the coming months. “We are hopeful that tourism may flow once again in October as the government has taken steps for its promotion. In case it does not, all houseboats will lay off their staff, which will happen for the first time in the history of tourism,” he added.