Tourism jittery

Elections, violence rhetoric and global recession can give coming tourist season a set back after the initial impediment of houseboat closure. Haroon Mirani reports.
With pear orchards, saffron fields and tulip gardens in full bloom, another tourist season has begun in Kashmir.  A host of problems are, however, putting a question mark on its prospects.
Global recession, parliamentary elections, and reports of Taliban closing in are all bad news for Kashmir’s tourism industry, for which the season began on dampener with stalled houseboats business.  
April is a crucial month for tourism in Kashmir. It sets the tempo for coming tourist season which extends up to mid September. If April sets a good beginning, experts say the rest of the year will follow, though most good running tourist season over last few years have turned dry overnight.
This season, people associated with tourism are trying hard to be optimistic.
“There are two things that are severely going to hit our tourist season this year” says Shakeel Qalander, Chairman Federation of Chamber of Commerce Kashmir. “First the global recession and second the coming parliamentary elections.”  
Experts say that global recession has reduced the purchasing capacity of people worldwide. “All over India, the tourist season is going to be hit by over 50 per cent and Kashmir will be no exception,” Qalander says.
News reports of increased threats of violence and infiltration are also scaring the traders. Now the reports, right or wrong, of Taliban sneaking into Kashmir are intensifying the rhetoric that Kashmir is not safe for tourists.
“Taliban stirs fear in Western as well as Indian tourists and all of them will prefer to maintain a distance from Kashmir,” says Azim Tuman, chairman Houseboat Owners Association.
Reports of Taliban presence pose a bigger problem of adverse advisories by western countries, where most of the high end tourists come from. The state government has been trying hard to get adverse travel advisories on Kashmir removed. The reports of Taliban presence can only bring in more such advisories.
The start of international flights between Dubai and Srinagar early this year was expected to boost Kashmir tourism by attracting high spending tourists from Middle East. Its success will also depend on the security situation in coming weeks.  
“If the graph of violence really increases during this season, the tourist season will be heading for another nosedive,” says Qalander.
The dampener for tourism came early this season in the form of houseboat closure by J&K High Court.  “Hundreds of bookings have been cancelled after tourists found out that they will not be able to spend time in the houseboats,” says Tuman.  
For its part, the government has been lagging behind in improving infrastructure. Most of the roads in Valley are dug. The much hyped four-laning of approach road to Gulmarg is yet to be completed.
Director Tourism, Kashmir, Farooq Shah told Kashmir Life that government was trying its best to upgrade the connectivity to tourist spots.
Shah said he was hopeful for the 2009 tourist season. “Till date, the response of tourists has been very good. Tulip garden and affordability of different facilities has certainly helped us a lot and bookings too are good,” says Shah.
Shah, however, avoids commenting on the effect of coming parliamentary elections on tourism sector. “Let us hope for the best” he maintains.
There is hope as well, with some experts stating that global recession could actually benefit Kashmir.
Indian tourists who earlier chose international destinations would prefer local destinations this time due to reduced purchasing power. Kashmir being a cheap tourist destination could be the numero uno choice.
The best example of this was seen in winter when tourists – not only from India but other countries too – dumped ski slopes of Switzerland for affordable slopes of Gulmarg.
“We are one of the cheapest tourist destinations and it is a major attraction for people preferring to go on vacations anyway,” says Tuman. “We had high expectations from this season as everything was going on very well.”
As the tourist slump hits other Indian states, the hotels in these regions too have reduced their rates, thus posing a stiff competition to Kashmir. Given the low cost accommodation available in other states, hoteliers in Kashmir demand tax relaxation so that they can pass on the benefit to customers.
Pilgrim tourism is expected to remain unaffected, as it has remained unaffected by most spoilers in the past.
IN 2008, a high flying tourist season came to a premature end following the Amarnath land row that stirred widespread protests in the Valley.

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