6.5 lakh tourists visited the valley between January and April.
Srinagar: A girl in her teens standing on the bank of the Dal Lake had spread her arms against the riot of winds. One wonders what she imagined at the moment. Apart from her, thousands of other tourists were silently stunned, seeing the mountains circling the lake. The place has never been so crowded with people so merry. Old people in the valley believe it is the lake that represents good tourism and bad tourism in summer in Kashmir. “The essence of the lake has come back,” said Altaf, a shikarawala, jubilantly pointing at the centre of the lake filled with tourists sailing in shikaras.
According to data provided by the Department of Tourism, more than 6.5 lakh tourists visited Kashmir in the first four months of 2022. As per estimates, around 300,000 tourists arrived just in the month of April. Director Srinagar Airport, Kuldeep Singh told The Sunday Guardian, “We are operating around 100 flights a day. We have even gone up to operating 110 flights in late April which is a record number. Each day there is a footfall of 10,000 to 15,000 people in Kashmir through air travel.”
The footfall of tourists this year has dwarfed previous year’s number of 6 lakh tourists. In the history of Kashmir, 2016 saw the maximum number of tourists at around 1.3 million. Experts say, this year’s boom in tourism is set to create a record number of footfalls by the time the year ends. A maximum number of hotels in different destinations in the valley are already booked for the next three months.
Director Tourism, Kashmir, Dr G.N. Itoo told The Sunday Guardian, “Two things have come up as a surprise, one that the quality tourists who would usually go to Europe or Gulf countries have come to Kashmir and two, that Jammu and Kashmir has become the favourite destination in the country.”
Firdous Shah, a PhD scholar in the Department of Tourism in Jamia Milia University, said, though Covid restrictions are not in place in UAE, Thailand and some other countries, yet these destinations do not fulfil the particular needs of Indian tourists for they want to travel to cooler places to escape the heatwave. Kashmir has a beautiful climate between 17 to 28 degrees Celsius and works as an alternative to those tourists who fancy Switzerland. Serving as a boon to domestic tourism have been the prolonged restrictions on international travel. And one common memory among all the high-end travelers, who would generally go abroad for vacations, is that the Covid curbs had them in an ordeal when international travel was shut in the middle of their holidays. “We were unable to fly back home,” said Priya, who was in UAE at the time.
Faizan Ahmed Mir, the Assistant Professor currently heading the Department of Tourism in Central University of Kashmir said, “People want to travel. And because they have been unable to go out for the last two and a half years, we are seeing this burst of domestic tourism.” As per a report worked out recently, 99% of tourists travelling to Kashmir are domestic. According to people associated with tourism, the bed capacity has gone several notches up and could well be above 65,000, for locals living in famous tourist destinations have transformed their homes and rented out their dormant rooms to tourists. “People who were registered as homestays did not have a good business, but now, the benefits are being yielded by them as well,” an official in the tourism department said.
Travel agents, houseboat owners, hoteliers say this is “peak tourism” in Kashmir. Several travel agents said, “We are getting innumerable calls every day, and now we avoid taking them because we can’t accommodate them anymore.”
The reason why there is a shortage of rooms, points out an official, is because hotels in the valley are scattered and everybody wants a room near famous destinations. Houseboats in the Dal Lake would cost around Rs 2,000 a night. This rate has gone above Rs 5,000; some luxury houseboats are even charging above Rs 10,000 per night.
According to houseboat owners, almost all the rooms in around 400 houseboats in Dal Lake are sold out. Rashid Ahmed Kaloo, houseboat union general secretary said, “This is the happiest moment for people associated with tourism.” Latief Ahmed Goona, who works in the tourism industry, said, “We can’t see any better tourism in Kashmir, all the people in the industry are earning. Some people have become weary and are even complaining that we are tired of dealing with tourists now as they have got no time for themselves, such is the intensity in tourism currently.”
This is also the first time when tourists have preferred off-beat destinations in such large numbers. There are 75 off-beat tourist destinations in Jammu and Kashmir, out of which 38 are in Kashmir. The Sunday Guardian visited a few of them. Dodhpathir, an off-beat tourist destination, was jam-packed when this correspondent visited the place. Mushtaq Ahmed, a roadside Kashmiri tea seller, said, “I have been working here for five years but this year we are receiving five times more tourists than normal years.”
Not only leisure tourism, but adventure tourism too has picked up pace in the Union Territory. According to the Department of Tourism, tourists are enquiring about the places where angling can be done, where rivers flow so that they can pitch their tents nearby. They are also enquiring about the places where they can go for a trek. According to experts, this time there is an increased awareness of trekking among domestic tourists which was not there earlier.
Sheikh Gulam Rasool, founder of Pir Panjal Adventure Club, who works for community conservation, in a part of Pir Panjal and also facilitates trekking in Tosa Maidan (a huge mountainous land famous for lush meadows) located in the Pir Panjal range, told The Sunday Guardian, “The flow of tourists has increased, there are more trekkers coming to Kashmir and currently, there is a fifty-fold increase in trekkers if we compare the flow with the last year.”