Impressive Footfalls

After years of slump, Kashmir is witnessing record tourist arrivals. With half a million arrivals registered already, stakeholders believe sustained interest will help make 2022 a record year, reports Masood Hussain

Tourists throng the Mughal garden at Nishat. The Bagh is located on the banks of Dal Lake. The graden remained crowded for the entire day on April 14, 2022. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Anywhere between Srinagar’s Boulevard and Lal Chowk any time during the day, there are more tourists visible than locals. That is the major shift Kashmir’s ailing hospitality sector is witnessing, these days.

“I start working by around 4 pm,” Abdul Razaq, who sells small handicraft items on the pavement on Boulevard. The pavement is lined with people who set their shops for a few hours selling dry fruits, handicrafts, wood carvings and other small things. “We close around midnight and we do have customers even later.”

Unlike the last three years when the Boulevard was groping in the dark for most of the nights, it is active and lit up during the nights. Almost on every ghat of the lake, Srinagar’s main tourist hub, one finds a group waiting for a lift to the airport or shikaras to ferry them to the houseboats. Off late, a section of Srinagar’s 1200 Shikara taxis has installed motors to manage the rush. Shakaras are traditionally peddled manually using small oars.

No Winter Vacation

It has been the tradition that the houseboat owners would close their operations during harsh winters when the Dal would freeze. They would use these months for small repairs and maintenance. “This was the first year, probably in my life, when we did not close,” admitted Ghulam Nabi, who owns a houseboat, deep in the lake. “As long as you have people coming to stay in the boats, there was no requirement for a holiday. It was not a 100 per cent occupancy but people used to come.”

Not Dal lake alone. “We had an amazing winter,” Asif Burza, the promoter of Ahad Hotels and Resorts chain, which has two major hotels in Pahalgam, said. “Pahalgam would normally not work in winter but this winter we sold out because the government ensured better power supply and promoted the destination well.”

Winter tourism, in the case of Kashmir, meant, Gulmarg because most of the winter sports infrastructure is located there – the chair lift, the cable car, army HAWAS, skiing slipes and the machinery required for that, almost everything has remained Gulmarg specific. The winters would usually invite the skiers and others associated with the winter sports. In 2022, it changed. There were people who were not interested in sports but wanted to stay in Pahalgam and watch snowing.

A man walking on the Dal Lake during heavy rainfall in Srinagar on July 25, 2019.
PHOTO BY BILAL BAHADUR

For the first time, a senior tourism department official said, “Kashmir had 61,000 tourists in January and around one lakh in February.” He said the department would spend the winter months having programmes in potential markets and convince people to visit Kashmir in summer. “This year, it was different, people were coming on their own and it looked so nice,” the officer said.

“This year, we ensured that Sonamarg is not closed with the closure of the Zoji La,” a tourism officer said. “This helped. People who spent some time in Srinagar, Gulmarg and Pahalgam also visited Sonamarg. There was some demand for winter sports and the private sector started addressing the deficits on its own. Now we can say we have Sonamarg as an alternative winter destination.”

Advancing The Season

For Kashmir’s tourism planners, it was a forever challenge to advance the tourist season that usually would start as the temperature surged in the plains. It was this issue that led Ghulam Nabi Azad, the former Chief Minister, to spend millions and lay Srinagar’s Tulip Garden in 2007. This year, the tourists were already in Srinagar fortnights ahead of the first Tulip’s blooming. When the almonds bloomed in Kashmir’s Badamwari, the garden was always crowded with tourists.

Finally, when the Tulip Garden opened, it created its own record. The garden remained open for 26 days, and when it closed for the season on April 18, the total number of visitors it had witnessed was 3.60 lakh, up from 2.50 lakh, the last highest number in 2021.

This was for the first time that the Floriculture department was desperate to extend the bloom. “Our employees worked during nights to sprinkle water but the rain deficit in March ended the bloom early,” said Inam-ur-Rehman Sofi. There are 68 varieties of the tulips but broadly they fall into three categories as far as their blooming period goes. “They were supposed to bloom at different times, which would have extended the season but the warm temperature led them to bloom simultaneously.”

Closure of the garden, however, did not impact the arrivals. “In March, we had 1.80 lakh and in April, I believe we will surely cross two lakh and could reach 2.5 lakh,” the officer said. “By all means, this is a record having more than half a million visitors in the first four months.”

After Years of Wait

“It is a good season,” hotelier Mushtaq Ahmad Chaya said. “Occupancy is good and across segments, we all are satisfied.” Chaya, who met the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi last week, said he told him how tourism is improving people to people relations. “People visiting us are judging us by their own experiences,” Chaya said, he told Modi. He said the government at the centre is keen that the tourism in Kashmir should pick up and this keenness is a key factor in impressive arrivals.

In the Kashmir case, a tourism officer said, the pandemic proved a blessing in disguise. It helped Kashmir’s hospitality sector in two ways. “Pandemic was managed so well in Kashmir that it did not create a crisis,” Burza said. “Then, the government accorded top priority to vaccination of the tourism-related workforce that gave a confidence to the visitor and that was primarily why; we had better footfalls in 2021 as well.” Kashmir got 6.65 lakh tourists in 2021 and a paltry 41000 in 2020.

“For the last two years, the immobility forced by the pandemic prevented the leisure loving top middle class from flying abroad and now when the world is gradually opening up, Kashmir is enticing them,” the official said. “It is accessible, in comparison not very expensive and as good as Switzerland.” Trader insiders said that low demand has made international travel expenses and this is helping Kashmir to emerge as the top destination these days.

Almost all the high-end hotels in Srinagar, Gulmarg and Pahalgam are having the highest occupancy right now. “It is very difficult to manage a reservation right now in a hotel,” one insider said. “The hotels are pre-booked for three months, if not more.” One hotelier said his chain is almost booked till late July.

It is not a particular category of tourists that is visiting Kashmir. “We have all categories, the high spending elite, the middle-class families and a section of backpackers,” Chaya said. “It is not from a particular market that the tourist belongs to. It is from Gujarat, Maharashtra, Delhi, West Bengal, Telangana, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and other states,” informed a tourism officer. “On an average, we have 8000 to 10000 visitors are reaching Srinagar on daily basis.”

Traditionally, three states were forming the main source of tourist arrivals to Kashmir – Gujarat, Maharashtra and West Bengal. “This time, it is from across India that we are getting the visitor,” the officer said.

Trader insiders said that most of the traffic is managed and mobilised by the online travel sites and most of the ticketing takes place months in advance. “Right now, there are three sub-sectors that are getting directly benefitted,” one insider said, “apart from hotels and houseboats, it is  the transport and to a good extent, the handicraft sector.”

Tourism, unlike other sectors, is cash intensive activity that has a cascading impact. No professional in the sector is able to retain his earnings to himself, it moves around.

Tracking Key Deficits

An improved confidence level in visitors was just not an overnight turnaround. The government tackled three serious issues that Kashmir’s hospitality sector was facing for all these years.

First Night flight operated from Srinagar Airport

For all these years till 2018, the government would plead with the central government that the TV in Delhi should avoid offering bad publicity about Kashmir as a destination. “At one point in time, the government visited almost everybody who mattered in Delhi with the only request that let the anchors’ relay news but avoid campaigns and every time it was conveyed that a free media is essential for democracy,” one officer, now retired, admitted. “This was finally done, now the TV anchors say all the good things and there are no campaigns.”

TV coverage of Kashmir would impact the investments that the people and government would make in the hospitality sector. In 2018, when hotels were pre-booked for most of the season, coverage of one event led to mass cancellations. The Pulwama car bomb was a key factor in preventing tourism from taking off in 2019 and later when it started stabilising August 2019 came. 2020 was the pandemic.

The ticket was a huge issue. At the peak of the tourist season, the Srinagar Delhi ticket would go up to even Rs 35,000. When the government would approach the policymakers, the routine response would be that it is the market dynamics at play – demand and supply. It was the time when 20 to 25 flights would land in Srinagar on daily basis.

This season, however, the ticket cost remained stable. “I doubt a ticket to Delhi was told for more than Rs 7000,” one ticketing agent, Shuja said. This was barring a few days when the snow stopped all operations and tickets jumped to Rs 14000. “Even group tickets are much cheaper now. This may have something to do with the number of flights operating now.”

In the last year, Srinagar airport witnessed a series of changes. The night landing facilities were installed which helped late landings at the airport. “The operations start at around 6 am and continued till late in the evening. The last flight take off from Srinagar airport at 9:15 pm,” one official who is working at the airport for the last many years, said. “Now at least one aircraft will have night parking at Srinagar and it will take off early morning. The number of aircraft staying in Srinagar overnight may increase in coming days.”

Tourists pose for a photograph after wearing Kashmiri dresses. The picture was taken at Pari Mahal in Srinagar on Thursday 17 March 2022. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Right now, on daily basis, more than 50 flights land in Srinagar. The highest number of flights landing in Srinagar was 53 in a day, excluding the charters, if any.

By an average five to eight thousand people fly in on daily basis. “I am told there is a commercial transport deficit and it will take some time to manage this,” Sheikh Ashiq, President of Kashmir Chamber of Commerce said. “The rush is helping us to identify the weak points so that they can be tackled.” An airport official said that though the airport is working to the maximum of its capacity if there are more flights, they will fly with a full load.

Challenges Ahead

The impressive numbers, however, are offering a challenge to Kashmir’s hospitality sector and the tourism planners. “Sustaining this tempo is the biggest challenge,” Burza said, insisting that it can only be done with the help of the government.

Stakeholders in Kashmir’s hospitality sector are unhappy that the tourist arrivals are being converted into a barometer of normalcy and peace. This, they say was being done earlier by the state governments as well and it took them a lot of time to convince the policymakers to delink arrivals from peace. “Tourists will come to a place only when there is peace,” said one hotelier. “We must also understand the fragile nature of our sector. Things are looking up well and we also need to take our precautions.”

Tourists pose in traditional Kashmiri dress at the world-famous Dal Lake in Srinagar on Sunday 28 February 2021.KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Improvement in infrastructure is a major challenge. In the last few years, the sector remained busy managing its debts and there were no spare funds to invest in the infra. “We need to have wider roads, especially around Srinagar’s tourism circuit like the Mughal Gardens, Hazratabal and the cultural bowl in and around Zaina Kadal,” Burza said. “Wider roads are a major requirement because a tourist who comes for a few days cannot afford spending hours between two destinations.”

A trade leader said that authorities have been hugely reluctant in permitting the repairs of the hotels in Gulmarg and Pahalgam. In certain cases, it takes a few months to get permission for repairing a window.  For a quick upgrade, the authorities will have to relax the harsh restrictions, they insist.

The biggest challenge, however, is round the corner – the Amarnath yatra. The government is planning to get almost eight lakh pilgrims to the yearly Hindu pilgrimage. This will go simultaneously with the routine tourist arrivals. While the government is planning to tackle most of the pilgrim rush, part of it will obviously mix the pilgrimage with sightseeing. This is expected to add pressure to the infrastructure. An officer said 54000 beds available in Srinagar will help manage the situation.

Besides, the stakeholders insist that part of the infrastructure that is under the occupation of the counter-insurgency grid should be restored for tourism activities. These include almost 60 hotels in Srinagar alone which have been converted into garrisons.

Tourists enjoying a sunset in Dal lake rendered golden by the sub. KL Image Bilal Bahadur

“We are aware that the tourists wish to move out of the age-old destinations, so we have added new circuits,” a senior tourism officer said. “Of the 75 new destinations, we have 38 in Kashmir and it is helping.” He said a group of visitors from the corporate world come directly to Sonamarg and spent a week in distressing and trekking and return. The department has opened a number of trekking routes to address the adventure-seeking tourists. “Gurez is being promoted. Last year, 14000 tourists visited the area located almost at the Line of Control and this year we have huge groups going there.”

What is a huge advantage this time, explained the officer is that the government at the highest level is responsive to the requirements of the sector.

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