Unprepared host

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People associated with tourist industry are expecting highest ever tourist arrivals this year but deficient infrastructure may be a major hurdle in hosting them. Hussain Danish reports.

With around 1200 tourists swarming into Kashmir per day and the official figures suggesting a presence of around 75,000 tourists recorded in past two months, the state’s capability to host a large influx of guests expected this year seems all set to face a stern test given the existing infrastructure, which many believe, is not even good enough for 1989’s benchmark-considered-figure of 7.73 lakh visitors.

Tourist arrivals began to increase after an all time low of 27350 in 2002 to 7.25 lakh, which included 25,000 foreigners, last year. In 2008, the Valley hosted 5.72 lakh tourists, including 5.50 lakh domestic tourists and 22,000 foreigners; and in 2009 5.77 lakh domestic tourists and 23,000 foreigners.

However, the infrastructure required to host the steadily rising number of tourists is more or less the same it was around two decades back before the start of armed militancy in Kashmir.

To host high end tourists, Kashmir has only three  five star hotels, which are located on banks of Dal lake. The number of hotels and guest houses, presently just over 1000, has largely remained unchanged in absence of a comprehensive government plan for up-gradation.

The room availability, people in the hospitality sector say, has increased marginally in the past 20 years. There are just 30000 hotel rooms, which can accommodate only 50000 tourists at a time.

“Two decades back the number of rooms in all hotels and guest houses taken together was 20000 to 25000. Today it is just 30000 rooms,” said Siraj Ahmad, president of Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Association (KHARA) – an association of 700 hotels and restaurants across Kashmir.

“The reason is that the successive governments over the years did not come up with any plan to upgrade the infrastructure. Only once, in 1996, Farooq Abdullah, the then chief minister promised to bring a plan to facilitate the up-gradation of hotels, but to no avail. We had no new hotels coming up and most of the existing ones are in a dilapidated condition. We are seriously lacking the infrastructure to host a large number of tourists,” he added.

Apart from a limited availability of rooms, hoteliers say, electricity crisis and bad roads are hampering the arrival of large number of tourists.

“Our customers demand power-supply and hot water round the clock, but in Kashmir we are facing severe crisis of electricity. Tourists want to see the places around and it requires proper roads and better transportation facility. Unfortunately, we have none,” said Siraj.

In 2004 the central government floated a scheme under Prime Minister’s package which provided loans for upgrading hotels. The loans attracted 11 per cent interest, seven per cent of which was to be paid by the central government.

“Many availed the loans, but they are struggling now because the government did not keep its promise,” said Lateef Ahmad, ex-president of Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Owners Association (KHAROA)—an association of over 300 hotels and restaurants.

An estimated 5000 hotel rooms are occupied by paramilitaries since the onset of the armed insurgency.

“For instance, we have a Nudos hotel spread over 100 Kanals (five hectares) on MA Road with 200 rooms. But it is occupied by CRPF and no one is bothering to even think of reviving it,” said Lateef.

In Kashmir Valley, the floating houses on the Dal Lake – houseboats – have more takers among tourists. Already the houseboats are having around 60 per cent occupancy and almost all houseboat rooms are reserved for May.

However, over the years, the number of Houseboats in Kashmir has reduced to mere 930 – unofficial figures put the number at 1200 – with a cumulative accommodation for less than 8000 guests.

The government banned construction of new houseboats on account of the rising pollution of water bodies. The number of houseboats is dwindling every year with the phasing out of old ones.

“There was a time in recent years when we had a good number of tourists in Kashmir and many of them had to spend nights on roads for the houseboats and hotels were all occupied. Today it will be no different if we face a huge rush of tourists,” said president Houseboat Owners Association, Manzoor Ahmad Wangnoo.

“The stay in houseboats is a dream of every tourist, but this sector is dying as we are neither allowed to bring in new houseboats nor to repair the old ones. I agree the environment is the biggest concern, yet government could have brought in eco-friendly schemes that could save environment and preserve the heritage houseboat sector at the same time.”

Apart from providing accommodation, Dal in itself has been the centre of attraction for tourists. Yet it has nothing to offer the tourists beyond the conventional spots like Char Chinari—the island in Dal actually having three Chinars instead of the four as suggested by its name.

On the contrary, the Bird sanctuary spreading between Dalgate-Nigeen-Pokhribal-Wular that had been a tourist attraction exists no more.

“Char Chinari like tourist spots could have been created in other lakes as well, and it could boost the tourism sector in Kashmir. But here we lost Anchar lake almost completely and with Wular and other lakes dyibg fast,” Wangnoo said. “There was a time when a large convoy of Shikaras would carry tourists through the sanctuary for seeing migratory birds. But now it is no more.”

Kashmir, on paper, has an international Airport, but no international flights take off from here. One that used to operate between Srinagar and Dubai has been permanently grounded to save the losses it was making.

“Every new sector faces losses till it is established and could have been true for Dubai-Srinagar flight which was grounded for running in losses. Many a times we went to the government suggesting that it should operate to some other international destinations that it thinks could be useful. But so far our suggestions have yielded no results,” said Rauf Tramboo, president Travel Agents Association of Kashmir.  “Absence of an international airport is proving a big hurdle in the tourism sector. Unless it is sorted out the sector will continue to suffer.”

Presently, on an average 15 domestic flights operate from the Srinagar airport, ferrying around 2000 passengers daily.  However, the inadequate facilities for nocturnal landings and take-offs, have restricted flight operations in Kashmir to the day-time.

It is becoming a huge deterrent to the tourists interested in short trips.

“A large number of people travel as weekend tourists. They may like to come on Fridays; stay till Sunday; and leave on Monday mornings. But here we do not have flights landing or taking off in either morning or night. So it is proving a big hurdle which should not have been the case at such a big tourist destination,” said a senior official at the airport, wishing anonymity.

The road transport facilities are not impressive either. The Valley neither has enough sophisticated buses nor the roads to be a good host.

“We did not have enough video-coaches and other sophisticated vehicles until last year when we purchased 300 such vehicles, specifically for tourists. But the vehicles are rusting in garages due to government’s policies,” said Shiekh Muhammad Yousuf, president Kashmir Transporters Welfare Association.
The government, for past several years has devised a policy to allow tourist busses from outside to ply in Srinagar. It is affecting both tourism as well as the livelihood of many people associated with the trade.

“In every state with tourist inflows   no ehicle from outside the state is allowed to ply. Ladakh, for example, does not allow any vehicle even from Srinagar to carry the tourists around. Here we have set up booking counters at Pantha Chowk and many other places to lure tourists, yet the buses coming-in with tourists from outside the state are allowed easily to take tourists to various places,” Yousuf said.

The condition of the roads leading to the tourist destinations does not exude much confidence about the state’s preparedness to host large number of tourists. The Srinagar-Gulmarg road widening project is underway for nearly past five years, yet it is far from completion. The ongoing work on the road is adding to traffic jams.

The fly-over on the bye-pass – projected as a crucial measure for easing traffic rush in the city – is also incomplete, and thus likely to put more pressure on the city roads that are already, as per traffic police officials, facing 300 per cent increased rush of traffic compared to pre-1990s. Most important roads leading to the interiors of the city are in a dilapidated condition.

For instance, the road stretch from Gowjara to Hawal has been left unattended since late 2009 after it was dug up for the drainage project. Similarly, Ali Jan road serving as a vital link between Srinagar and tourist destination, like Manasbal and Sonmarg, is incomplete.

The potholed Boulevard with its under-repair footpaths, always seems to be congested with tourist vehicles.

Formerly, the tourism in Kashmir was restricted to ‘golden triangle’ of Pahlagam-Srinagar-Gulmarg with tourists frequenting these places. Subsequently, the government not so long ago increased the number of developmental authorities to 20 from around 10. However, the new destinations like Bungus Valley, Yousmurg are lacking infrastructure to host tourists.

“The creation of developmental authorities is a good step taken by the government, but now it needs to promote the public private partnership at the places so that an infrastructure is developed which could host tourists,” president Federation Chamber of Industries Kashmir, Shakeel Qalander, said.

“Right now we do not seem to be in a position to host a huge rush of tourists, predominantly because we are seriously lacking the infrastructure. We do not have enough 5-star or 7-star hotels for upper middle class visitors, roads, enough spots of tourist attraction, places for adventure and much more. We cannot even compare our Grand Palace to modern 5-star hotels around the globe. We can merely take around one lakh tourists at present.”

In fact, the court has banned the construction of new hotels at Pahalgam out of the environmental concern. The proprietors are even prohibited from carrying out necessary repairs on the already existing hotels.

Pertinently, the Dr C Rangarajan committee in its report on Kashmir has highlighted the need for the state government to take “sectoral initiatives” in tourism development, predominately suggesting the development in infrastructure and widening of the span of tourism across Jammu and Kashmir. The committee has identified scarce accommodation facilities and under-developed rooms as a limiting factor to the tourism sector.

The report has suggested to the government to have a ‘tourism vision document’-the minister for Tourism, Nawang Ringzin Jora, later during the assembly session claimed that it was formulated.  The committee has recommended that it (tourism) shall be expanded beyond leisure tourism to other spans like religious tourism, sports tourism and adventure tourism.

“Even conventional tourism can be a big boost to tourism sector, but, that is, if we could motivate the multinational and national companies to  host their grand annual meetings here in accordance with the contemporary trend of having those meetings on hill stations. It can be a tremendous boost but so far no one has shown any concern towards it,” Qalander, whom the committee consulted for inputs about trade and commerce in Kashmir, said. The government, however, claims that it is fully prepared to host “a good number” of tourists.

“We have everything ready. All destinations are ready and we are ready to host the tourists,” said minister for tourism, Nawang Ringzin Jora, reluctant to confirm the expected number of tourists. “We have created new destinations this year and all are having something to present to the tourists. Let us hope everything goes on well,” said Jora.

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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