New Delhi: The Covid-19 induced restrictions on international travel have proved to be a “blessing in disguise” for the tourism sector in Kashmir, especially with regard to rich domestic tourists who would usually visit foreign shores as they can afford it, people associated with the Kashmir tourism sector have said.
Rich domestic tourists, who would usually visit foreign lands to spend their vacation, have started coming to the valley in their backyard—Kashmir. “We want to see the whole of Kashmir,” said a merry tourist staying in a hotel. Gowher Ahmed Wani, who has won several awards in tourism research, said: “Every natural beauty has natural attractions and it’s the conflict that has marred the pristine place, otherwise, people want to come to Kashmir.”
Firdous Ahmed Shala, who runs multiple businesses in the tourism industry, said: “Tourism is at a peak, Gulmarg is sold out, Pahalgam is sold out, there are no rooms left, all tourists are domestic tourists, it started from the last year. Earlier, they would fly to Dubai and other international destinations; now people have no alternative but to either visit Kashmir or Himachal. The tourism sector is striking gold these days.”
Although the recent killings of civilians by unknown gunmen in the valley had spurred many tourists to cancel their bookings and made people associated with tourism worried, tourism has picked up again unexpectedly. A hotelier said: “There were cancellations recently, but it’s catching up fast and is probably going to be a boom for a long time.”
Sameer Sultan who travels intensively across Kashmir and is a tour operator said: “The prices of cabs have gone up. On normal days, I would book a cab for Rs 1,600 a day—now it has reached Rs 2,400 and even some are demanding more than that. Some of the hotels in Pahalgam have become dysfunctional because of the frozen water supply and now there is a lot more pressure on other hotels which have got sold-out.” Farhan Khan, an official at the Srinagar airport, told The Sunday Guardian: “We are operating 49 flights daily bringing in around 5000 passengers and flying back the same number.”
Last year in November 2020, Kashmir witnessed footfall of 6,327 tourists which has now jumped to more than 1,25,000 in the same month of 2021. Tourists’ arrival has increased 20 times compared to last year’s November footfall. A hotelier in Kashmir said: “These are high clientele, they are taking up good hotels, these are not the regular tourists that Kashmir has been hosting. Rich customers are flying into Kashmir.” He added: “As long as it’s shut internationally, it is good for Kashmir.”
A tourism analyst said that compared to other travel destinations in India, Kashmir has far lesser services and facilities to provide which is a concern for the longer run, “Unless we have suitable and adequate infrastructure for tourists, we can’t go far.” This paper called many 3-star and 4-star hotels in Pahalgam and Gulmarg and found out that there are no rooms available till 1 January, 2022. Ishfaq Ahmed, who runs a 41-room hotel near Srinagar airport, said, “From the last four to five months, our hotel is sold-out; we don’t have any rooms left till 31 December. Everyone seems to be coming to Kashmir.”
However, the number of tourists staying in the houseboats in Dal Lake has declined. A houseboat owner said: “We are hosting only few tourists because in winters, the Dal Lake is bone-chilling cold. Also, people are afraid in the night to travel by shikara. There is one more reason and that is there are intermittent power cuts and when the lights are off, the lake looks out of charm, ghostly and uninhabitable. People don’t see it as a worthy place to spend their time.”
Mudasir Ahmed Rather, a senior travel consultant, said: “We need to give more training to all the people associated with tourism industry so that every person in the industry knows how to communicate and behave with the tourists to make their trips memorable.”