Picniconomics

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Tourism is cash and has instant trickledown effect on any economy. While the contribution of hospitality sector to the state’s overall economy is slightly exaggerated for political reasons, the government seems reluctant to address the issues primary stakeholders have flagged, Shams Irfan reports.

A foreign tourist posing for picture at Tulip garden in Srinagar, Kashmir. Photo: Bilal Bhadur

Every tourist who lands in Srinagar and spends a day here contributes around Rs 2000 to the state economy. According to a government estimate, tourism generates Rs 8 crore a day during peak season for the cash-starved state for around 120 days in a year in times of peace. The contribution to Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) in 2011-12 by Trade, Hotels and Restaurants was 7.93 percent, according to the economic survey carried out by the state in 2012-13.

Often cited as the backbone of Jammu and Kashmir’s economy, tourism sector provides direct livelihood to just two percent of the state’s population. In last two years, the numbers of tourists visiting Kashmir has seen a record growth. In 2011-12, around 13 lakh tourists visited Kashmir. These figures exclude religious pilgrims visiting Amarnath cave and Vaishno Devi temple.

According to data collected from different stakeholders in tourism sector, a tourist spends four days in Kashmir on an average which means he would spend roughly around Rs 8000 during his stay in Kashmir on food, lodgings. If transport charges are added, the figure might slightly go up.

Combined infrastructure capacity in the region of Kashmir can provide nightly accommodation to around 45, 000 tourists which includes 4696 in houseboats, 31,792 in hotels, guest houses and paying guest houses, 482 in Sonmarg, 1500 in Gulmarg and around 6000 in Pahalgam. Tourism season starts from mid- March in Kashmir and it usually lasts till winter approaches. As Kashmir valley is covered by a white blanket, the number of tourists decline, although popular destinations like Gulmarg still sees some footfall of foreign and domestic tourists. “Tourism is important as all transactions take place in cash. It helps keep money floating in the market,” said a member of Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Owners Association.

On the day, the 2001 Parliament Attack convict Afzal Guru was secretly hanged inside New Delhi’s Tihar jail, a group of Kashmiri traders including hotels owners, tour operators and taxi owners were participating in Tour and Travel Fair in Mumbai. Describing the atmosphere at the fair, a Srinagar based hotel owner said, “A day before his (Guru’s) hanging, we received a record number of queries. We were doing on-spot bookings. Everybody was happy. It was a successful day in terms of business for all of us.”

Indian tourists at Dal Lake

But as the news of Guru’s secret hanging and burial inside Tihar jail spread, 75 percent bookings were reportedly cancelled within a span of hours. There was a huge question mark over the remaining 25 per cent bookings. Kashmiri participants suddenly felt themselves alienated and foreigners.

The industry insiders believe that most of the Indians plan their holidays in the beginning of the year, that too with little or no change in dates. “If Kashmir is disturbed during that time, they will go to some other place rather than cancelling and waiting for things to improve here. We are receiving just queries but there are hardly any confirmations so far,” said Ayesha Saleem, the owner of New Peak Hotel in Srinagar’s main business hub, Lal Chowk.

In last two years, a number of big Bollywood films including a Yash Raj banner film titled Jab TaK Hai Jaan starring superstar Shahrukh Khan was shot in Kashmir. Bollywood’s re-entry in Kashmir was highly publicized and hailed as a major step to boost ailing tourism sector. “Kashmir on silver screen often works magic,” said a local line producer, Sajid, who manages Bollywood crews in Kashmir.

The SRK magic had not only inspired Bollywood but it also caught attention of South Indian film industry as well. Muhammad Mohibul Haque, a politician turned filmmaker from Assam, shot his film 18.11 – A Code of Secrecy, in Kashmir.

After SRK’s successful entry and safe exit from Kashmir, a number of Bollywood producers and directors showed their willingness to shoot in Kashmir. And it did not take long for Kashmir tourism industry to reap the benefits of SRK’s maiden visit as Fox Star Studios announced a 45-day shooting schedule in Kashmir for Hrithik Roshan and Katrina Kaif starrer film titled Bang Bang. But before the crew could reach Srinagar, things started to boil in Kashmir as anti-India and pro-freedom protests rocked the valley.

Shikaras lining famous tourist spot Dal Lake in Srinagar. Photo: Bilal Bhadur

The Kashmir sequence of Bang Bang was immediately put on hold as producers started exploring alternatives. A hotel located on the outskirts of Srinagar where the cast and crew of Bang Bang were supposed to stay during their Kashmir visit saw immediate cancellation of the booking made by the production team.

The perceived normalcy and a record number of tourist arrivals in last two years attracted an otherwise unexplored sector of tinsel town to Kashmir. India’s multi-million crore ad industry instantly found Kashmir as a dream destination to shoot ad films. Within no time, a number of ad films including the award winning Visa Debit Card ad campaign were shot in Kashmir. Interestingly, these ads used Kashmir as a background theme to sell their products.

“I don’t know why we stayed away from Kashmir all these years,” said Ramanuj Shastry, creative director Saatchi and Saatchi on his arrival in Kashmir. In January 2013, Saatchi and Saatchi shot a sequence of its HCL ad campaign in Kashmir. “We are surely coming back,” Shastry had said in an excited voice. But in less than a month, the situation in Kashmir changed entirely.

“One way or the other, everybody in Kashmir is connected with the tourism sector,” feels Siraj Ahmed, chief spokesperson for Kashmir Economic Alliance, an amalgam of various trade organizations including hoteliers, houseboat owners and taxi operators. “Tourists have apprehensions because of turmoil. If government is serious to make Kashmir a world class tourist destination, they should first try to resolve Kashmir issue,” said a local trade analyst.

Without any proper policy in place, the state government is falling prey to temptations by allowing people to build large commercial buildings without crosschecking their credentials. “People visit Kashmir for its natural beauty. They are not interested in concrete glass buildings,” said an industry insider.

Faiz Bakshi, the president of 400-member strong, Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Owners Federation (KHAROF), which has valley’s top hotels among its members, is optimistic about this year, “All is not lost. We are not completely disappointed,” he told me.

“Tourism is the most significant economic sector of the state,” said Bakshi. “Without the presence of tourists in Kashmir, obviously everything gets disturbed economically,” feels Bakshi.

Youth clashing with police in Srinagar after Afzal Guru’s hanging. Photo: Bilal Bhadur

The revival of tourism industry in Kashmir suffered another setback when a grand international corporate conference about potential of Kashmir as private healthcare destination scheduled to be held in Gulmarg on World Health Day was cancelled. A Srinagar-based event management company, Spice Communications, which was looking after the arrangements, is struggling to convince clients post Afzal Guru’s execution that Kashmir is a safe destination. “One cannot even calculate the loss,” said Dr Amit Wanchoo, CEO, Spice Communications, said. Starting February till ending March, Wanchoo’s Spice Communications had 13 big events lined up across different locations in the valley. “But all of them were cancelled because of the ongoing situation,” said Wanchoo.

Event management business is still in its infancy in Kashmir. Using his personnel contacts, Wanchoo had successfully organized a number of small and medium sized events in Kashmir last year. But this year, he struggles to convince people to travel to Kashmir.

Wanchoo feels the situation in Srinagar has direct impact on the number of tourists arriving in Kashmir. In February, Spice Communication was all set to host a Kolkata based couple who had planned to celebrate their wedding anniversary in Pahalgam, along with 180 friends and family members. “We were happy that the success of this event could set a trend and people will visit Kashmir for other reasons as well,” said Wanchoo.

But the events took a bloody turn in February with the execution of Afzal Guru as three civilians who were protesting the hanging were killed by forces. The events threatened to spiral out of control as forces put Kashmir under a virtual siege in which most number of business days were wasted in shutdowns and curfew imposed by the government.

In 1947, there were around 3500 houseboats in Kashmir. At present, stationed at locations like Dal Lake, Nigeen Lake, Chinar Bagh and on the banks of River Jhelum in Srinagar, there are around 800 houseboats left in Kashmir while the rest have either closed down business or deteriorated. In Kashmir, the government has imposed a ban on renovation of houseboats, “But only 400 of them are in a good condition,” Azim Tuman, President, Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association, a conglomerate of houseboat owners in Srinagar city, said.

With local wood used in manufacturing of these houseboats becoming scarce, houseboat owners have to rely on exported wood. “Two decades back, a complete houseboat used to cost around Rs 20 Lakh. But in recent times, the same costs not less than Rs 1 crore.”

With the number of tourists visiting Kashmir increasing each year, most of the houseboats remain packed for full four months. On an average, a single graded houseboat can accommodate two couples. Houseboats have a total capacity to accommodate around 3200 tourists per day. “Houseboat owners are totally dependent on tourism to survive,” Tuman said.

Houseboat Association President Azim Tuman

“We should not take increasing number of tourist arrivals as indicator of growth for tourism sector. We still lack basic infrastructure like road connectivity, uninterrupted power and water supply, clean and pollution free environment, sanitation and security in Kashmir,” said a Srinagar based tour operator, who claims to have suffered huge losses since February this year because of cancellations.

With less than five percent of Kashmir’s population directly associated with the tourism industry in Kashmir which contributes around eight percent to the state’s Gross Domestic Product, it would be a simple exaggeration to suggest that the state is dependent on tourism for survival, a false narrative meant to serve the political constituency of some vested interests. However, the impact of hartals and curfews on the revival of tourism as a significant, contributory sector towards the state’s economy can’t be overlooked.

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