As another tourist season begins, and Kashmir hopes to cater to record number of visitors, Haroon Mirani finds that infrastructure and policy hurdles are playing spoilsport.
Backed by a heavy promotion outside and relative calm inside the valley, Kashmir is hoping and preparing for a record tourist season. But skeptics say lack of infrastructure and some hurting policies are acting as roadblocks.
After a comparatively good season in 2009, tourist inflow has already picked up in March this year and is increasing, but industry people say airlines are playing the spoilsport.
The peak tourist season sees an increase of air fare to Kashmir by around 400 percent.
“This is becoming a routine for them. They (airline companies) have hiked the Delhi-Srinagar airfare upto 12000 that is even more than some international flights,” said Omar Nazir, proprietor Labaika Travels and Tourism. “We can’t expect a family of four to spend Rs 48000 on just air travel to Srinagar.”
The exorbitant airfare keeps a major chunk of tourists away from Kashmir. “A return ticket to Hongkong costs Rs 7000 and one way ticket from Delhi to Srinagar costs 12000, now who will like to come here.”
On the contrary, airfares to other tourist destinations like Shimla remains constant throughout the year.
Limited hours of operation at Srinagar airport is another deterrent for the tourism sector. “A high end tourist sometimes wants to come to Srinagar in the morning and leave in the evening, but there is no provision of late night or evening flights,” said Omar.
Still the number of tourists flying to Kashmir is good. “Currently we get around 2000 people arriving by air,” said Nazir Bakshi of Sheeraz Travels. “The number is increasing.”
The authorities at Srinagar International Airport are also gearing for the expected increase. “The tourist season has already started and we are catering to around 2500 passengers daily,” said O S Tyagi, Director Srinagar International Airport. “We are getting 14 flights daily from different places like Mumbai, Delhi and even Bangalore.”
According to Tyagi the passenger and aircraft count is increasing. “We are hoping to receive at least 18-20 aircrafts per day in the coming months and passenger rush will correspondingly increase,” said Tyagi.
The authorities are working to increase the parking space for aircrafts which is currently limited to five. “We are increasing the parking space for aircrafts to six by ending May and in the next six months the parking space will be enough for 9 aircrafts,” said Tyagi.
The runway is also being re-carpeted but some perennial problems remain. The operation of airport for civilian purposes is limited at present from 10 AM to 3 PM and there is no indication of any extension “No there is no plan of increasing the watch hours,” said Tyagi.
The abandoning of Srinagar-Dubai flight has been another dampener. “At this time even smaller airports in India are getting flights from international destinations like Middle East, central Asia, South East Asia and other countries, but despite declaring it as international airport, it doesn’t get even a single international flight,” said Bakhsi.
Tyagi expressed ignorance about the resumption of the international flight. “I have no information about its resumption. May be Air India people know,” said Tyagi.
The tour operators have been requesting permission for chartered aircrafts to land at Srinagar airport but it has been declined.
In the last few years, the tourism sector has faced another problem that has hindered percolation of the fruits of the trade to locals. “Generally tourists coming here use their own transport and thus a major chunk of their budget doesn’t reach to local transporters,” said Omar. “There is no policy to encourage the tourists to use local transport, unlike in Leh where outside transport is simply banned.”
There may be a dearth of high end quality housing facility, but industry insiders say there is no dearth of quantity. Siraj Ahmad, president, Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Association (KHARA) says that Kashmir has the potential to cater to 25 lakh tourists annually. “We have around 22000 hotel rooms and they are enough for housing 25 lakh tourists on an average of three nights per tourist,” said Siraj. “Even if we don’t have high standard accommodation but still it is enough for our short term needs.”
Siraj said that last year the hotel occupancy was just at 30 percent. “But this year we hope to cross that figure,” said Siraj who owns Hotel Orion at Lal Chowk, Srinagar.
According to KHARA, around 120 hotels and guest houses are under the occupation of estates department and security forces. KHARA represents 700 guesthouses and hotels.
Siraj says infrastructure problems are acting as deterrents. “We don’t have good roads for destinations like Yusmarg, Aharbal or even Gulmarg, where road construction has been going on for ages,” said Siraj.
Hoteliers are also demanding withdrawal of a heavy VAT. “In a comparatively developed state like Himachal Pradesh the VAT rate is just four percent and for the most underdeveloped state like ours, the VAT rate has been enhanced to 13.6 per cent,” said Siraj.
Houseboat Owners Association chairman Manzoor Wangnoo expects the tourism season to be “extremely good” this year. Wangnoo says, the tourism season has started earlier by a month with many arriving in March itself. “We are expecting a good turnout this year and it is after twenty years that tourists are coming in such numbers,” said Wangnoo. “One of our members received customers after a four years gap.”
Wangnoo says there are around 960 registered houseboats besides some unregistered ones which account for around 3000 rooms.
“This year the occupancy is expected to be record high.”
Wangnoo, however, is upset with reports that some agency in Delhi has distributed adverse circulars to different embassies. “Such things are very disturbing and they create panic situation among the foreigners,” said Wangnoo, who received a call from a foreign embassy enquiring about the situation in Kashmir.
Most of the people associated with the tourism trade say that the current good tourism season has dawned due to unrelenting efforts by government and industry people to promote Kashmir in international market.
“We have done lot of marketing of Kashmir in various national and international travel marts and other occasions and hopefully that is bearing fruit,” said Nazir Bakshi, proprietor Shiraz Travels.
Tourism Department and private operators enhanced their presence in large number of events, travel fares, conferences and conventions held within and outside the country which include, international travel marts, national travel marts/fairs and festivals to motivate domestic as well as foreign tourists to visit J&K in large numbers.
But some experts say that the promotional campaign has been flawed. “They have been stressing on those countries which have issued bad (adverse) advisories for visiting Kashmir,” said Omar. “They are not campaigning in Southeast Asian countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and others, which is a huge untapped market.”
Gulmarg is also gearing for the tourist influx. Javid Bakshi, Chief Executive Officer Gulmarg Development Authority said the government has been campaigning heavily for promoting Kashmir. He added that in view a Supreme Court ruling no addition of rooms can be made in Gulmarg. “But we have been helping in renovation and refurbishing of existing rooms,” said Bakshi. “At present we have the capacity of catering to 1800 tourists.”
Railways are the latest addition in Kashmir. The gleaming red Diesel Electric Multiple Unit (DEMU) trains run ten sorties five each time up and down carrying 5000 passengers per day. “Railways have got immense response from local residents and it is surely attracting more passengers with every passing day,” said Vikramjit Singh, chief controller Kashmir Railways. “Of these 5000 passengers, maybe around 200-250 also are tourists and others on joyride, but that number is very low.”
Singh described the reasons to limited connectivity of Kashmir railways. “Currently the trains run on a limited track and tourists coming from outside are not boarding it due to the incompatibility in their schedules,” said Singh. “But once the railway line is fully connected with outside the valley, we are expecting huge response.”
According to the available figures 10.53 lakh tourists that included 3.73 lakh pilgrim tourists visited Kashmir in 2009.
Government has identified some new tourist destinations, including Bungus, Gurez, Telail, Doodpathri, Lolab, Drangyari Kupwara and Khag. “These places will be developed as Village Tourist Resorts to boost economic conditions of the people of these areas,” said Nawang Rigzin Jora, Minister for Tourism. “Besides work on 68 Tourist Villages is nearing completion and five more villages have also been sanctioned recently by the Centre.”
The development of Jehlum River front has been completed and illumination work is in progress. Government has also created wayside facilities for the visiting tourists at Bijbehara, Awantipora, Khijipora, Mamar, Kunzer, Ganeshpora and Akad.
According to Jora, “Rs 70.58 crore have been spent by various Development Authorities for developing tourism infrastructure in various areas of the State.” Under the rural tourism scheme an amount of Rs 5.29 crore has been spent on 20 villages in the state, the minister added.
To promote Golf tourism, the tourism department will upgrade golf courses at Gulmarg and Pahalgam from 9 to 18 holes with world class infrastructure facilities.
JKTDC has generated revenue of Rs 22.46 crore till ending January against Rs 19.63 crore during the corresponding period last year.
J&K Cable Car Corporation has generated revenue of Rs 11.59 crore as against Rs 8.39 crore during last year. The government will take up some projects during the current year, including construction of Ropeway from Mubarak Mandi to Bahu Fort, chair lift at Makhdoom Sahib Shrine and Chair lift to Kongdori and construction of revolving restaurant at Affarwat.
The worst fear for the tourism sector are the statements coming from army and government. “When you repeatedly say that 400 militants are waiting to cross into Kashmir, it definitely has its effect,” said Siraj. “Besides there are some elements outside the state who are hell bent to dent our tourism season.”
According to the businessmen, the tourism season of 2009 would have been even better, had the Taliban news not been played? “The highlighting of wrong news about Taliban coming to Kashmir played havoc with otherwise smooth tourist flow,” said Siraj. “People panicked and then started the decrease of tourist flow.”