Valley woos visitors


Ebbing pandemic creates hope for fresh tourist inflow in Kashmir, reports RIYAZ WANI

With the virulent second Covid-19 wave ebbing, Kashmir looks forward to a renewed tourist inflow. And to this end, the administration is taking steps to project the Valley as a safe destination. This involves a two-pronged strategy: one, vaccination of the people associated with the tourism. Second, strict enforcement of the SOPs to ensure the safety of the tourists during their stay in the Valley. The administration has already carried out vaccination drives at tourist destinations. However, it will be some time before the tourist arrivals get to the levels before the second wave.

“We have already vaccinated two-thirds of tourism players and are working overtime to ensure all get jabbed to create conditions for tourism to revive soon,” Ahsan-ul-Haq Chisti, Deputy Director in the Tourism department, told TEHELKA. “Besides, we are ensuring that the people are trained in observing the protocols to look after tourists well during their stay in Kashmir.”

Tourism in the Valley has been battered by the turmoil of the last two years — albeit, the tourists had started arriving in increasing numbers by November last, helped largely by the ban on international travel due to the pandemic.  Another factor that worked in favour of Kashmir tourism is snow, a novelty for most Indians. The union tourism minister Prahlad Singh Patel had then said in a statement in the Rajya Sabha that the tourist footfall in the union territory this year had broken the record of the last 16 years. In January all the 1800 hotel rooms in Gulmarg, Kashmir’s winter wonderland, were booked till the end of March.

But following the winter’s uptick, the fresh tourist arrivals petered out as the second wave reared its head and soon overwhelmed the country and J&K. Since the latter part of March, there have hardly been any tourists, cutting the nascent recovery of the sector in its bud. This has once again led to the loss of livelihoods. Hardest hit have been the low wage workers like ponywallas, tourist guides, cab drivers, hotel staff, boatmen etc.

This prompted the administration to announce a 3 crore relief package for people employed in the industry. According to the package, 2,000 financial assistance was provided to the registered shikara owners, tourist guides,  ponywalas, and others, including those who rent palanquins for yatris. The money was paid for the two months to tide over the peak of the ongoing wave.

But as is obvious this money is peanuts and would hardly have compensated for the massive loss due to loss of tourists. “Here’s hoping that things improve from hereon,” said said Nasir Shah, a major travel and tourism operator. “The complete vaccination of the population is certain to reign in the pandemic, creating conditions for businesses including tourism to reopen”.

The government has also doing its best to push tourism recovery. In J&K Budget 2021-2022 1,000 crore shall be taken up for development programme of tourism infrastructure. Officials said the budget for tourism and culture, the two are allied departments, was 283 crore in 2020-2021 it is 780 crore.

Going forward, the government wants to make the tourism a holistic experience by combining it with “art, culture and cuisine,” said Sarmad Hafeez, the tourism secretary. This will, however, only be possible if the pandemic gets out of the way. As things stand, the number of fresh Covid-19 cases has drastically come down, both in the country and in Kashmir. The government has already cancelled Amarnath pilgrimage, lest it spread infections in Kashmir and across the country. “If the infections continue to decline at the rate they are doing, the situation could become normal soon,” says Chisti. “This would automatically lead to return of tourists to the Valley.”