With Kashmir becoming the first-choice of the Indian middle class, Srinagar spent nights hunting for sheltering guests this summer. Is it the beginning of revival of tourism industry, Tasavur Mushtaq reports.
“Afzal Guru’s file will not be kept pending for long. I will clear his file within 48 hours of its receipt.”
Sushil Kumar Shinde, Union Home Minister, told the reporters in Delhi. Guru’s mercy petition will be looked into after Parliament’s winter session.
It was back to halcyon days in 2012. A semblance of calm and aggressive marketing by the stakeholders made 2012 the busiest tourist season. Srinagar’s International Airport received 29 to 35 flights a day and the fare structure created new records. Sick and the students became prey to the adversity that a good tourist season brings. The Boulevard, the main tourist hub, was a scene of regular traffic jams.
“Kashmir is the best place to spend your hard earned holidays. Not only is the place beautiful, but people here are very nice and helpful,” said Neilesh Kumar, who visited Kashmir for the first time.
By the end of October this year, 9,519,710 tourists including 54,460 foreigners had visited Kashmir. For the second consecutive year, pilgrims visiting Vaishno Devi in Katra crossed one crore mark. With 43554 rooms available – 25141 in Kashmir, 12978 in Jammu and 5435 in Ladakh, accommodating such a huge number sometimes becomes a problem. Tourism department is now implementing a centrally sponsored scheme which incentivizes locals for converting a portion of their house into paying guest house. So far, 657 have availed the package. It was a situation that forced the state government to manage de-occupation of 60 percent hotels in which army and paramilitary forces were living and operating from.
Arrivals in 2012, Azim Tuman, president Houseboat Owners’ Association says, was the best summer he witnessed after World War II. “Then, a large number of soldiers on their way to the battlefield came to relax and enjoy the scenic beauty of the valley,” he said.
The response to the arrivals was international. Japan, Germany and Britain withdrew advisory for their citizens against traveling to Kashmir. These were imposed after the outbreak of militancy in 1989. Australian, Canadian and some other European countries are re-assessing the Kashmir situation, officials says.
Though credit must go to the primary stakeholders for making tourism a success, a number of officials including ministers and their personal aides flew to various continents for ‘selling’ brand Kashmir. On their return, they started a multi-million campaign for promoting tourism by raising billboards from airport to Dal Lake that advised hosts not to cheat, harm, harass or misbehave with the tourists. This self-denigrating and nihilistic campaign funded by taxpayer was shelved after the industry argued that crime against tourists was almost non-existent!
Back home, Srinagar hosted international tour operators for three days during which they revived their contacts with the host sector and personally assessed the situation. Some of them were surprised as to why Delhi was not marketing Kashmir the way it does Kerala or Jaipur.
As tourists arrived in large numbers, tourism ministry approved 165 new projects under central financial assistance costing Rs 516.80 crore. The new projects also include the three mega projects, each given to Jammu (conservation and restoration of Mubarak Mandi Heritage Complex), Kashmir (development of tourist circuit from Naagar Nagar to Watlab) and Ladakh (Trans Himalayan Cultural Centre at Leh) at the cost of Rs 77.46 crore.
Private sector apart, even the institutions and the services of the government linked to tourism made money, a lot of it actually. JKTDC is making profit for the third consecutive year. Parks doubled their ticket fee income. Cable Car Corporation is actually minting money now. It earned Rs 22 lakhs daily in June – August quarter.
“Even in October, we fetched Rs 10 lakh a day, which was a new experience for us since it is considered as an off season for tourist arrival in Kashmir,’’ informed Sheikh Parvaiz, the liaison officer of Cable Car project.
There were certain newer investments in attractions. Kashmir Eye, the Aero Balloon which is a 21st century flight technology is operational in Zabarwan Park in Srinagar. An entrepreneur invested in water transport that is still a partly-urban phenomenon on Jhelum.
The newer addition was Kashmir becoming a high-end wedding destination. Two families from Delhi and UP flew their guests in charters to Srinagar and solemnized the marriage here. Later 100 couples on their marriage anniversary flew their families and friends to Srinagar for a week. “It is an encouraging start,” says Dr Amit Wachoo who was behind the initiative.
But the otherwise fragile tourism is no barometer for the Kashmir situation. Chief minister Omar Abdullah rightly puts it: “Revival of tourism should not be equated with normalcy. Whether 1000 tourists visit the state or 13 lakh, it will not determine the normalcy and resolution of all problems.”