The Low Footfall

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After the government evacuated tourists at the peak of a successful tourist season in August, Umar Mukhtar sees no change on ground yet after the advisory was withdrawn

Empty shikaras as Kashmir witness less tourism activity after 370 abrogation.

Every morning, Fayaz Ahmad, 60, drives around half of Srinagar city to check his business establishments. Owner of a chain of guest houses, most of his properties are in the vicinity of Dal lake, Srinagar’s main tourist hub.

On August 2, days ahead of stripping Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, the state home department issued an advisory asking tourists and pilgrims to leave Kashmir. At that point of time, usually the peak tourist season, according to officials in the tourist department, about 20,000 to 25,000 visitors were in Srinagar.

Since then, Fayaz’s all guest houses stand locked. Only some employee stayed back to take care of the properties.

Fayaz has almost 500 room capacity and around 150 employees. “The advisory created panic all around; all of the tourists cut short their visit and left,” Fayaz said. “All my scheduled arrivals were cancelled.” For most of the autumn, Fayaz used to have almost half of the occupancy filled. It is nothing now.

Almost 69 days later, on October 9, the home department announced the withdrawal of the August 2 order. “The tourists desirous of undertaking a visit to the state shall be provided all the necessary assistance and logistical support,” the order said. This move at the onset of winter could have been cathartic only if in real sense there was the ‘necessary assistance and logistical support.’ It helped nobody.

Fayaz’s guesthouses are deserted still. There is no change on ground. No one is coming to Kashmir. “Do they think a mere order would do the wonders and get tourists back? What about the fear psychosis the government created on August 2? ”questioned Fayaz Ahamd.

Fayaz is not the only one impacted by the crisis, the government triggered in August. The entire sector is suffering. Grand Palace hotel, one of the two 5-star hotels in the city, barley crossed three per cent this season. Hotel insiders said they have not sacked the staff but shifted part of the human resource to other properties outside Kashmir.

The tourism industry almost accounts for 6 per cent of Jammu and Kashmir’s GDP. The revocation order did little to get tourism back on track. According to data revealed by the tourism department, only 7,378 tourists visited Kashmir after the advisory was lifted, bringing the total number of tourists in the month of October to 9,378. If the figures would be compared to the number of tourists who visited Kashmir in 2018 in the same season, it shows a fall of 84%. Last year, the number was 59,048 tourists recorded in the same month last year, shows a data.

The hotels are now gradually opening their operations but the slump in tourist footfall has restricted it to certain destinations only. The famous cable-car service has been also reopened after the revocation order in an effort to woo the tourists. Around 1,600 people had taken the gondola ride, a prime attraction for tourists in the Gulmarg meadow.

Most of the tourists who are flying in had their pre-booked tickets and didn’t want to waste money on cancellation.

“This is my second visit along with the family. I wanted to be here for 15 days but the circumstances around have compelled me to cut short my visit,” Ashitoush, a tourist from Vidarba said. “I flew back only after seven days of visit. Neither there is internet nor any shops open. My kids basically compelled me to go back.”

The recent killing of 12 non-local civilians has derailed the revival efforts. Among the 12 killed, five were from West Bengal. Mostly in the month of October and November, Kashmir receives a large number of tourists from West Bengal during the Durga Puja holidays. That component is completely dry, officials said.

Tourism officials had seen 2019 as promising tourist year. Prior to the vacation and travel-ban advisory, more than 8.6 lakh tourists and Amarnath pilgrims had visited Kashmir: 1.74 lakh arrivals in June; 1.52 lakh in July, including 3403 foreigners.

Off late, there are interesting reports appearing in Delhi media about improved tourist arrivals. This has surprised the tourism officials.

Even after the tourist advisory was withdrawn, Kashmir sees not much tourists.

“On normal days, the average tourist footfall recorded at the Srinagar airport was around 2300 per day. Now the number has gone down to around 30,” one senior officer said. “We do not know wherefrom the tourists come, who counts them and where.”

Gulmarg, one of Kashmir’s most sought after winter destination is desolate despite a heavy snowfall. It witnessed compulsory evacuations in August, and within days later, there were reports of infiltration from the area. Pahalgam is not better either. Hospitality sector insiders said there are around 10 tourists holidaying in Aru. The town was full of tourists when the advisory was issued. Pahalgam is one of the base camps for the Amarnath yatra.

A vast section of people engaged in the hospitality sector are idle, literally. “I was working in a hotel in Pahalgam, but our owner told us to stay home till things get normal,” said Ashraf. After the advisory was withdrawn, Ashraf was optimistic that he would return to his job. He called his owner only to be told that no tourist is coming. “He (owner) told me to pray that the year 2020 goes well.”

Bashir Ahmad, 56, a shikara walla sits idle all the day on Dal lake’s GhatNo 12. There is no one to ferry around.  “I have not seen even a single tourist after this so called lifting of travel ban,” Ahmad said. “This is just an attempt at image makeover.” The entire shop line on the Boulevard survives with closed shutters.

Most of the business establishments are shut since August 5.

Tourism department officials said they are doing their best to woo tourists back to valley. Under Back to Valley programme they have asked Federation of Indian Tour and Travel Association to aggressively campaign for reviving Kashmir tourism. Besides, the Department is planning road shows in various state capitals and reconnecting the major tour operators to get the Kashmir meadows back in circulation. An advertisement is being put up in all the airports across India.

“But circumstances are abnormal,” one official said. “The revival is subjected to the internet access.” He expects the scene is unlikely to change in winter as well. The central government had suggested its employees to avail LTC to visit Kashmir but it has not triggered any change on ground.

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