Undeterred, tourists continue to swarm Kashmir

Targeted killings of non-Kashmiris and Kashmiri Pandits have failed to dampen the spirit of tourists who continue to throng the scenic valley giving a strong rebuff to those trying to disturb the peace. A report by Sunny Sharma.

As against about 7 lakh tourists who visited in 2021, the Kashmir valley has seen over 8 Lakh tourists bewitched by its enchanting beauty between January and May 2022. What does this indicate?

The Director, Tourism, Kashmir, G.N. Itoo said that the department has started promoting all the seasons in Kashmir. Itoo added that this is the first time that spring season is being promoted in Kashmir.

Last year, Kashmir tourism found unusual brand Ambassadors in the persons of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. The PM had tweeted, “Whenever you get the opportunity, do visit Jammu and Kashmir [J&K] and witness the scenic Tulip festival. In addition to the Tulips, you will experience the warm hospitality of the people of J&K,” Modi highlighted the uniqueness of both the place and its people. Shah’s post-J&K visit tweet also echoed similar sentiments.

Data shows that 1,62,664 domestic travellers and 490 foreigners visited the Kashmir Valley in January and February. During the first three months of 2022, more than 3 lakh tourists arrived in Kashmir to enjoy the snow in Gulmarg, Sonamarg and Pahalgam followed by the spring tourism around Srinagar’s Dal Lake. Officials add that Kashmir’s Tulip Garden at the foothills of the Zabarwan range in Srinagar had received 2 lakh visitors within 10 days of opening for the season.

On 4 April, the Srinagar Airport saw its busiest day ever in history, with 15,014 people travelling on 90 flights in and out of Kashmir. And in Srinagar, almost all 60,000 hotel rooms that can accommodate nearly a lakh visitors are booked until the first week of June. Actually Kashmir is witnessing a record footfall of tourists this year. After a slump of three years, nearly two lakh tourists visited the Valley in March alone. And between January and 15 May 2022, it saw 700,000 visitors, the highest in the last 10 years. Such is the rush this time that hotels are fully booked till mid-June this year, industry sources said.

Data from the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department and the Union Tourism Ministry indicate that the number of tourists between January and 15 May 2022 jumped to 700,000, the highest in the last 10 years. This is more than four times the 125,000 people seen in the same period last year. As per media reports citing a tourism ministry official, between October 2021 and March 2022, at least 80 lakh people visited the union territory.

Currently 80-90 percent high-end hotels are occupied in Srinagar, said Abdul Wahid Malik, President, Kashmir Hotels and Restaurants Owners Federation. Amid the tourist influx, the Srinagar International Airport has registered record flight operations. For example, on March 28, Srinagar airport operated 90 incoming and outgoing flights which ferried more than 15,014 visitors, the most so far in the airport’s history.

Director, Srinagar Airport, Kuldeep Singh said, “We had record-breaking 45 arriving flights with 7,824 passengers and 45 departing flights with 7,190 passengers on March 28. A total of 90 flights with 15,014 passengers makes it the busiest day in the airport’s history.”

Kashmir has in recent times seen targeted killings of non-Kashmiris. Kashmiri Pandits and non-locals have been killed by terrorists in the Valley since Article 370 was abrogated in August 2019. The article granted special status to the erstwhile state of J&K. News reports suggest that Kashmiri Pandits are desperate to leave the valley while the government machinery is trying to prevent them from what appears to be the final exodus. Social media is flooded with desperate comments that talk about the deteriorating situation in Kashmir on the one hand and The Kashmir Files movie and similar topics on the other.

However, undaunted by the spate of targeted killings, tourists have visited the valley in record numbers this summer. As against a little shy of 7 lakh tourists last year, the Kashmir valley has seen over 8 lakh tourists between January and May 2022. Tourism is booming in Kashmir! The Dal Lake resembles a busy city of colorful shikaras, the Srinagar airport has handled a record number of flights and tourists this season — long queues being a new normal at the airport. Reports suggest that hotels are running at full occupancy and markets are bustling with tourists. Restaurants are packed and Kashmiri cuisine is having its best moments in decades.

The valley saw a record 2.8 lakh tourists in April 2022, the highest in nearly 3 decades. The tourism department officials expect the rush to continue until June and the uptick in tourist arrival throughout the year.

From 30 June, the Amarnath Yatra will begin and over eight lakh pilgrims are expected to make the pilgrimage this year.

Besides the main destinations that draw the maximum number of tourists including Gulmarg, Sonamarg, Pahalgam, Dal Lake, and Wular Lake, the state tourism department has opened 75 new destinations that include Bungus, Lolab Gurez, and Dodipathri. Adventure tourism and adventure sports activities are becoming more popular as more tourists are choosing trekking, camping, mountain biking, river rafting, paragliding, and hot air balloon rides during their stay in the valley. Quoting tour operators, media reports tell that the average stay of tourists is from one to two weeks. Finding hotel rooms in tourist hotspots is not easy as they are seeing 100% occupancy even at double rates.

The rebound of tourism in Kashmir kicked off in the post-Covid period when tourism in the premier Indian tourist destination, Kerala, took a hit from Covid-related slump and complications. Tourism department officials attribute the success to aggressive marketing, pan-India promotion, and effective Covid management that saw all stakeholders from cab drivers to hotel owners getting vaccinated. Introduction of direct evening flights have given a shot in the arm to tourism in J&K and night flight operations have already begun at Srinagar’s Sheikh Ul Alam airport, thus allowing travellers to get into the Valley at all times of the day.

Various reports suggest that the sense of normalcy in the Kashmir valley has strengthened and the targeted killing of non-Kashmiris and Kashmiri Pundits could be desperate attempts by the militants to disturb emerging peace and confidence. As per the government data, at least 80 lakh people visited Jammu & Kashmir between October 2021 and March 2022.

Secretary, Tourism and Culture, Sarmad Hafeez, said that since the J&K government has taken tourism as a priority, advertising campaigns have been launched across India to encourage tourists to come to Kashmir. “The government has identified 75 lesser-known destinations across J&K which have potential to become top tourist places.”

However, all said and done, the infrastructure continues to be a weak link in the chain of the development process. While main roads are well laid, the peripherals are in a state of neglect. It is known that every year, heavy snow takes a toll on the roads, however, some solution to the problem needs to be found. There is also the issue of erratic electricity supply and lack of other modern amenities. Lack of infrastructure is always a deterrent to visitors and the sooner this situation is rectified, the better. A tense security situation is no longer an excuse to stall movement in this direction, it is imperative for Kashmir to witness a considerable facelift in case the tourist and business potential is to be fully exploited.

This is the time for all genuine stakeholders who have the good of Kashmir in mind to join hands in isolating those who have inimical designs. This is the time to be mature and work towards consolidating the gains accrued as a result of diligent hard work and great sacrifice. J&K needs constructive contribution and not opportunism. Nothing can be gained by reliving or lamenting a traumatised past in a manner that overshadows a bright future. Instead, it’s time to look ahead and to work for a bright future. The influx of tourists even during targeted killings shows Kashmir can entice tourists despite odds.