How lockdown-hit Kashmir is trying to revive tourism

It’s been a terrible two years for the tourism sector in Jammu and Kashmir—already hit by militancy, then the political upheaval in 2019 and now the Covid pandemic. In March 2021, tourist arrivals had picked up to 125,000 from about 19,000 in January. But the spurt in advance bookings and inquiries came to a grinding halt by mid-April as the second wave of Covid-19 hit the country.

a group of people on a boat

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Tourism accounts for close to 7 per cent of J&K’s GSDP, with more than a third of the Union territory’s 12 million population directly or indirectly associated with it. Tourism has been hit time and again in J&K in recent times. In 2016, the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani saw a five-month-long period of unrest beginning June 8. The annual inflow of tourists fell from over 1.2 million in 2016 to 850,000 in 2018. In August 2019, authorities had cancelled the annual Amarnath Yatra midway, sending an estimated 25,000 tourists back. A four-month military clampdown followed the August 5, 2019 repeal of Article 370.

Last June, after the Covid lockdown, announced in end-March, began easing up, the tourism sector attempted a revival, with the administration holding awareness campaigns and road shows. As the first wave of Covid began abating, tourists started arriving in droves by December 2020. Over 125,000 domestic and foreign tourists—the highest in more than 17 months—arrived in Kashmir in the first four months of 2021. Hotels and houseboats saw heavy bookings.

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Now, during the second Covid wave, the Kashmir Valley is battling a high number of infections (35,095 active cases as on May 31) and the vaccinate drive is making slow progress. But the authorities have started a multitude of activities to boost tourism.

J&K secretary (tourism) Sarmad Hafeez says a two-pronged strategy has been developed to ensure that tourists feel safe visiting Kashmir. The plan includes vaccinating priority groups and holding trainings so that tourism stakeholders can adhere to safety protocols. The administration has prioritised vaccination for travel and tourism stakeholders, including boatmen, cab drivers, tour operators and hotel staff. “This will send out a message that Kashmir is safe for tourists,” says Hafeez. “About 9,000 people who have interface with tourists have been vaccinated. We are trying to create conditions that aid safe tourism.”

The tourism department has roped in the Institute of Hotel Management in Srinagar, Kashmir University and health experts to run capacity-building programmes. An online training module on Covid-safe tourism has been prepared and training will be started shortly. “The aim is to make J&K a destination for safe and responsible tourism,” said Hafeez.

There is considerable enthusiasm among the tourism stakeholders towards being vaccinated. Many houseboat-owners and shikarawalas (boatmen) in and around the Dal Lake have taken the jab. Muneer Ahmad, a Dal Lake boatman, says people like him are keen to resume economic activity as the lockdown has affected livelihoods. In the absence of tourists these days, Ahmad sells vegetables on the periphery of the lake to support his family of five. “When tourism thrived, I used to make Rs 2,000 or more a day, depending on the rush of visitors,” he says. “But we have been virtually left jobless since August 2019. I have had to seek assistance from NGOs as it was getting difficult to meet my expenses.”

Farooq Kuthu, president, Travel Agents Association of Kashmir, says mounting losses have left tourism stakeholders on the brink of ruin. As per the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 500,000 jobs (including 70,000 in the tourism sector alone) were lost in a year since August 2019. Now, businesses are suffering estimated losses worth Rs 2.5 crore every day due to the lockdown. Kuthu says the Covid graph will determine how much tourism can pick up in the next season.

In the wake of the losses, the administration has extended monetary relief. On May 15, J&K lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha announced a relief package of Rs 2.94 crore for the tourism sector. It included Rs 2,000 worth of financial assistance to registered shikarawalas, tourist guides, ponywalas and others for two months (Rs 1,000 per month).

G.N. Itoo, director tourism (Kashmir), says about Rs 12 crore has already been disbursed among eligible beneficiaries in the tourism sector since May 2020. To many, however, this amount is insufficient. As Mohammad Amin, publicity secretary, Houseboat Owners Association Kashmir, says: “The government should offer loans without interest, with a moratorium of 5-10 years. That might help the community.”

Follow the government’s latest travel advice if you are planning a trip outside India or travelling back to India from affected areas. You can also read World Health Organization’s advice on basic protective measures against the virus. WHO has also busted some myths surrounding coronavirus. The Ministry of Health’s special helpline is available at +91-11-23978046 and [email protected]

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