A Picnic Halt

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With focus on Gujarat and Maharashtra, the two main states sending hordes of tourists to Kashmir traditionally, nobody in policymaking circles knows that halt of local picnic-goers and excursions to Pahalgam has started impacting the lives of the people who rarely counted on backpackers from the plains, reports Umar Khursheed

Rayees Ahmed, 30, is a self-learned, self-employed tourist photographer from Ganishipora. Sole earner of his family, he has spent his life clicking photographs of visitors in parks of Pahalgam. He is one of the 175 photographers in the tourist resort. Since July 2016, when Burhan Wani was killed, he is literally without any work.

“We used to earn Rs 2000 to Rs 3000 per day from photography but we hardly earn a few hundred now,” Rayees said. “My entire equipment including the camera and its accessories are the outcome of my earlier earnings here in Pahalgam.”

As the “fear psychosis” prevented visitors from coming to the valley, Rayees said they hoped the local picnic-goers will replace the footfalls from mainland India. “But the insecurity triggered by the projection of South Kashmir as dangerous stopped the locals too,” he said, insisting, “Our families are seriously impacted”.

At one point of time, school excursions and family picnics were the main sources of income for the whole Pahalgam market, according to Rayees. “There were times when from the horsemen to the hoteliers, everything solely depended on local tourists. But that ended in 2016,” he said. “Now, nobody wants to visit the ‘forbidden’ lands and put his family to risk.”

In the last few years a healthy trend had emerged out of the Srinagar city and other major towns. They would witness mass movement, especially of youth, to the tourist spots on weekends during peak summer and for the days of strikes or continuous holidays. Till 2015, these merry-making convoys would trigger huge traffic jams on the highways to Pahalgam and Gulmarg. In 2013, there were reports that hundreds of late-comers did not find night shelters and slept in vehicles or on the pavements otside these heavenly locales. All that seems to have changed. For now, at least!

For most of the turmoil years when the domestic tourists would avoid coming to Kashmir for security reasons, the only traffic that helped the massive  tourist infrastructure sustain itself was the local traffic. It was as true for Pahalgam as for Gulmarg.

Rayees Mir ,32 ,takes care of Lala JI Cottage in Pahalgam. For last many years, he stays put at Pahalgam, after giving up his job in Srinagar. “We understand that the visitors have changed destinations for a while but it is a fact that we were sustaining our operations by making some earnings from locals,” Mir said. “The shock is that the rush has dried up almost completely.”

“There were many families from Srinagar who rarely missed a date with Pahalgam in last many years,” Wasim Ahmed 35, who runs Hotel Highland in the main market, said. “For the last two years, they have also skipped this destination.”

For most of the hotels and huts in Pahalgam, there is an existential crisis brewing up. While their operational costs have remained same, their income have shrunk considerably. To overcome this loss of business,  Wasim recently converted his few rooms into a marriage hall. “It has helped me to earn at least to cover my running costs including the salaries” , he said.

Whether it’s the outcome of the bad press, real security concerns or less damage control measures by the government, the story is same for all the hotel properties.

Mohammad Rafi Itoo 30, an employee in Poshwan Park Pahalgam informed that many employees left their job voluntarily on the call of their conscience.  “if the owner does not earn, how can he pay his staff?, was the common refrain of all those who left”, says Rafi.

“Earlier during the weekends the local flow used to be very high and in certain cases, traffic jams would be routinely reported till midnight but after July 2016, all of that has become a distant memory”, Rafi said.

The floriculture department used to hire daily wagers to take care of the flowers inside the park but when there are no tourists they manage everything by themselves normally.

Ghulam Ahmed 45, a senior employee in the Amusement Park has spent almost past ten seasons in Pahalgam. “The excursion rush would be around a few thousands of students a day but this year it was not more than 300,” Ahmad said. “While hotels would earn from visitors, the parks and the shops would earn from locals.”

Nazir Ahmed 40, an ice cream seller for last five years said his earnings has fallen from Rs 1000, a day, to around Rs 300. He fetches ice-cream from the Islamabad town and comes on a bicycle. “Earlier while tourists used to relish branded icecreams in hotels, my cones would be gobbled by the picnicking school children. Nazir said. “If locals visit Pahalgam, i make an earning, if they don’t come I earn nothing. It is as simple as that.”

A resident of Batakote, Lahood Wani 34, runs a provision store on the banks of Lidder. Usually, he would spend four months, till August, in Pahalgam and live in a tent. “These four months would fetch me a year’s necessities at home,” Lahood said. “Now I do not visit Pahalgam because there is nothing to be sold. Locals stopped coming and then the staff of hotels left. To whom do you sell now?”, he asks.

Issaq Ahmed 37, is a vegetable seller from Aishmuqam. For last 10 years, he has been making a living by selling vegetables and fruit to hotels as well as in retail. “Restaurants have not much work now,” Issaq said. “My daily earning has gone down from Rs 10,000 to Rs 2500 and one of my two assistants has already left the job.”

A resident of Lidru, Manzoor Ahmed Lone 28, is also a tourist photographer for the last five years. “Most of us have started hunting for an alternative because, with these cameras, we cannot feed our families.”

Whether or not the situation was created by the ever changing security situation or the crippling stress that the economy is witnessing post-demonetisation, stakeholders suggest that the government must step in. “Why cannot there be events and conferences in Pahalgam?” one senior hotelier asked. “Somehow planners will have to think how the system can be encouraged to sustain and prevent us from falling apart.”

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