I was 19 when I started my own tourism business in 2009, and for all the volatile situation in Kashmir since then, my business, and my conviction in this industry, has only grown
I was 16 when I lost my father. At that time I had to make a choice whether to continue with my studies or start earning to support my family. I wanted to continue my studies but the circumstances had planned otherwise for me. Our extended family had a traditional business of houseboat accommodations in Dal Lake, run by my uncle, Altaf Ahmed. I started working as manger for one of the houseboats.
A year later, my uncle Mohammad Ibrahim Siah told me to work at his travel company office. It was an opportunity that changed my life. My uncle helped me a lot in understanding this business while I worked as a tour manager in his company. However, I was not a stranger to this industry. My father was in the same industry. You can say it is in my blood, as from childhood I was a fun and adventure loving person. It didn’t take me much time to understand the business.
But understanding a business and running it is totally different. This I realised once I decided to go for my own tour and travel company. It was a big decision for me. I had to leave the job I was doing and at the same time put my own savings into establishing my own company.
In view of the unrest in the valley, many of my friends suggested me to continue with my job. They had genuine concerns; they knew that it was not easy to sustain a tourism business in a place like Kashmir where every second day you have a curfew or a strike, and many a times this can continue for months together. We had seen many people from the same industry switching to other businesses because of the turmoil that brought this industry to its knees.
But I had decided to go for it, despite all the negativity around me. The optimism I had was due to the technological edge that I thought could be used over the traditional business methods. I intended to use the internet as the main tool for marketing my business.
During my job at the houseboat and as a tour manager in my uncle’s office, I had worked very hard to understand how the tourism industry works in Jammu and Kashmir. I knew that I could use my knowledge of the old and new ways to improve my business, but one must not be overconfident, for I was aware of the fact that the law and order situation plays a big role in this industry.
Hoping for a comparative calmer season ahead, I established my own tour and travel company, Online Holidays, in 2009. At that time I was only 19. I was probably the youngest entrepreneur in the Kashmir tourism industry.
The first thing I did was to register a web domain for the business. While I was finishing the formalities of registering my business with J&K Tourism Department, the website got ready and I started promoting my business through social media. By grace of God, we had a good tourism season that year and my personal contacts in the travel industry helped me in getting started.
But just a year after, the situation turned hostile and everything came to a standstill in 2010. It was depressing and I was worried that whatever I had gained in the past year would be lost. The hope to resume normal business was fading away with each passing day of violence and curfews.
In Kashmir we have two major seasons for tourism: summer and winter. Summer is the peak tourist season in Kashmir but we had lost it completely that year. The winters are comparatively calmer, going by the history of agitations in Kashmir, so we capitalised on the winter season that year. But the 2010 situation made me realise that I must have some backup plan as it can turn bad any time.
In 2011 I visited Himachal for a business promotion tour. Having the backup plan in mind, I decided that I will set up a Kashmir handicrafts showroom in Himachal. I published an advertisement in a local daily for a shop on rent and got some leads. I made an agreement with one of the owners and came back to Kashmir. My brother had now finished his studies, so I told him that we were going to open a handicrafts showroom in Himachal and he has to run it.
Today, Online Holidays is a leading tour and travel company in Jammu and Kashmir. We provide tour packages for Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh and Himachal. Besides that, we provide hotel bookings, houseboat accommodations, car rentals, and trekking tours. We have a team of tour guides and trekkers who can customise packages for a couple on honeymoon as well as for large groups, all in affordable budgets.
We have been rated as the best tour operators by our valued customers on Google. You can check our Google reviews. Tourism is a delicate business and you have to be very cautious while providing services to your customers. Every day you have a new client who has a different attitude, so one has learn to be polite and accommodative. There is no scope for ego in this business.
Today most of our business comes through referrals from our clients. It’s the most satisfying part of the business when your client recommends you to more people. People are apprehensive about Kashmir so you have to make sure that your client feels that once he is here you are here to provide him every kind of support. But if you get a referral, it is better and easier to convert it into a sale. One must keep in mind that good service pays back in this business.
Our travel company operates from Srinagar and has a branch office in Himachal as well. We also have a handicrafts showroom in Himachal and we have got our own houseboat and a hotel on lease as well in Kashmir.
Do I think that tourism is a business that young people should consider venturing in, going by the situation in Kashmir? Well, the situation in Kashmir can turn hostile anytime and that is a major challenge for this industry. But despite all the odds, I firmly believe that it’s a sector which has the potential to create jobs in urban areas. We have the horticulture industry which is a major component of our economy, particularly the rural economy, but tourism industry not only has the potential to boost our urban economy but it has proven to do so in the past. I am a very optimistic person and I am hopeful that once this Covid-19 scare and restrictions are over, we will be back in business. Kashmir is a very affordable travel destination in comparison with other regions in India and abroad. Most of the tourists who visit Kashmir are from Indian middle-class and upper-middle class, who cannot so easily afford to visit foreign countries. A tour to Kashmir can start from as little as Rs 5,000. One can’t even imagine a tour in this budget to any other place.
Yes, the political and security situation in Kashmir plays a big role and we can’t control it, but there are other issues that I think need attention. For example, airline fares to Kashmir in peak season are often higher than of international flights or for other domestic tourism destinations. It’s a big challenge that we face. We have taken up this issue with the administration through our association TAFOK (Travel Agents Federation of Kashmir). I also work as the organiser for TAFOK. I firmly believe that tourism has great potential in Kashmir and the government must keep this sector in priority.