TAAI-Up

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As the state tourism ministry is trying to help revive the hospitality sector, facing a historic slump for the last three years, stakeholders suggest the improvement would require a lot more than what is obvious, reports Masood Hussain

When a small film crew’s arrival walks on the front page of the Kashmir newspapers, it indicates the crisis the hospitality sector is facing. And tragically when the same crew changes hotels quite fast in Srinagar, almost on daily basis, it represents the severity of the malady that the slump has triggered in the sector.

That is exactly happening in Srinagar. A hotelier, negotiated a deal for dozen odd rooms, to house the crew for the entire shooting period. A few days in Srinagar, they shift to another hotel that gave them an “attractive” package involving huge discount. A week later, they were seen warming their new “cosy” rooms after they got a “much attractive” package!

“It was happening earlier when hoards of houseboat owners would yell at guests putting up a hotel that they would get best rooms in the lake at a fraction of the hotel cost,” a senior hotel-owner, who also led the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said. “But what is happening now is unprecedented: hotels are competing with each other.”

The “negative competition” has gone up to a new level. One of the two major high-end hotel managers confided to this reporter how even officials “exploited” the weakness triggered by the slump. “They shuttled between two of us for a week, what we offered today, was discounted by the other hotel and then both of us reached a level that it would barely cover the basic costs,” the hotelier said. “Then I stopped competing for the big meeting because it was unattractive so they took it.”

This competition is the result of a crippling crisis that the hospitality sector is undergoing. Post-floods, it has been three seasons of idleness: a huge staff to feed, maintenance of assets, failure in repayments and no work. The last time, certain hotels in Srinagar saw some crowds in their restaurants was on Christmas. “Even then, the occupancy did not cross 25 percent but we felt some sort of being busy,” one hotelier confided. “Now the routine is that five in 80 rooms are occupied!”

The situation in Pahalgam is worse than Srinagar. Last time when go-getters attempted breaking the post-yatra silence on the eve of New Year, the main road was even haunting. Now completely reduced to the status of Shangri La, a mythical silent spot, the hotel owners have started sending the workers home. Most of them have actually picked new trades and skill or are going as labourers to keep their families going. “Imagine a situation that of a sudden, Pahalgam has a mass surge in footfalls,” one hotelier said. “We are in such a formant mode that it will take us a month to get back to the 2014 summer routine.”

Gulmarg, in comparison, is better; thanks to the petty snowfall that is driving the basic winter sports activity. The postcard ‘wonderland’ is witnessing a rush that, insiders said, routinely lasts between December 15 and February 15. “Then they join us back for rest of the year in sustaining a process that is routine for the last three consecutive seasons,” one senior hotel-owner in Srinagar, said. “The crisis is that not only that the visitors are not coming, the tragedy is that even the locals have stopped visiting the picnic spots. I still wish to see the days when the road to Pahalgam or Gulmarg would witness traffic jams till midnight.”

The flip side of it is not so uninteresting. At this time, there are as many as 26 new hotels coming up between Jawahar Nagar and Nowgam. Has there been some market analysis to make this investment?

Finance Minister Dr Haseeb Drabu’s announcement that the building and other requirements in hotels will be considered a machinery in bringing the sector at par with industry, and will entail the same concessions will boost the hotel building process. The initiative addresses a major demand of the hospitality sector but will impact their viability in absence of adequate footfalls.

“Right now, we have almost 30,000-bedrooms available in Kashmir,” a major hospital sector lobbyist said. “How much catering capacity is it for a calendar year? Has anybody calculated?”

The crisis in the infrastructure got exposed unintentionally this month. The government is working towards hosting the first Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI) conclave in Srinagar by the end of March (27-29). It will be the first such hospitality sector enclave in Srinagar in last 30 years. Before the militancy broke out, Kashmir has played host to seven such conclaves but the process stopped after situation deteriorated. Expected to have around three thousand delegates, Kashmir’s new tourism minister Tasaduq Mufti’s team is silently working towards it.

In the run-up to the preparations, a team visited Srinagar to see the infrastructure for housing the delegates which are normally moving across continents and are in huge demand from every pale between Beijing and Europe. “They were shocked that not more than 150 rooms suit their delegates,” a top Tourism officer said. “When we insisted that there is better accommodation in other not so high-end properties, they lowered their selection status and identified 450 rooms in Srinagar.”

In such a situation, certain things are quite obvious. Firstly, the government must work overtime and manage an image-makeover using the same media that played “villain” in last three summers. The help can come from no one excepting the Prime Minister. Secondly, the government should avoid adding to the crisis by forcing a local body election on Kashmir because it can deteriorate the situation further especially in absence of any movement on the larger political level within Srinagar-Delhi-Islamabad matrix. Thirdly, the policy-makers must intervene in halting a fresh investment into the sector for the time being and instead handhold the existing stakeholders in gradually getting to the next level in infra upgrade.

Hospital sector is a minor contributor to J&K’s squeezed GDP. But in comparison to all other sectors, its cascading impact on the economy is much higher. The highly fragile sector needs a delicate handling. Even a mole can prove a molehill and trample the sector’s possible prospects, this summer.

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