House Full Sign Greets Visitors To Kashmir

1 June 2008

Srinagar: For years, booming guns kept them away. Now, Kashmir doesn’t have room for all the tourists who want to come. The state is virtually turning its back on visitors, many of whom just can’t find rooms in a season that is turning out to be one of the best since the high point of 1987. “The demand for hotels exceeds our capacity. We are having to say no to many who want to come,” said Nasir Shah, president of Travel Association of India’s J&K chapter. Kashmiris are beaming. “The inflow has been very good for May and we hope to do well next month, too,” Shah said Nazir Ahmad Bakshi, of Shiraz Travels, echoed him. “It is as good as it was in 1987, one of our best years. We hope it lasts the entire year.” Tourism department officials said over two lakh tourists have arrived so far this summer, more than double the number at the same time last year. “In April alone, we had a lakh tourists,” an officer said. Most of the tourism facilities are in Srinagar, which has 1,200 registered houseboats on the Dal Lake, averaging three rooms, and 3,000 rooms in hotels and guesthouses. Several hundred more are available in Pahalgam, Gulmarg and some other resorts. All put together, they can accommodate around 20,000 tourists a day. Packed hotels have meant a windfall for owners. Lateef Ahmad offered rooms at his Dal Rim Hotel for Rs 800 a day last year; this year, he is earning double the amount. The summer rush has also sent air fares skyrocketing. “The price of a Delhi-Srinagar ticket, which is available for Rs 3,500, has gone up to Rs 10,000 this month,” said Arif Gasyari, owner of Guide Line Travels. With the nine daily flights from Delhi proving too few, airlines are running more services. A full tourist season, which typically means just 120 days of summer, could put more than Rs 2,000 crore a year in the hands of Kashmiris. The number has rarely been achieved over the past 18 years, but things could change this time. “We have around 1.5 million people directly or indirectly associated with the tourism industry. Earnings of Rs 2,000 crore look possible this year,” Hafiz said. Since the boom year in 1987, two years before insurgency erupted, the industry has had few moments of joy. A bright spot appeared in 1999, but the Kargil war sent tourists rushing out of the Valley. The initial years of the Congress-PDP coalition turned out to be good, but attacks on tourists in 2006 scared visitors away. The decline in numbers is one reason why tourist facilities haven’t improved. “If the flow lasts the entire year, there will be a hotel boom from next year,” said Habib Ullah Mir, former president of Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Owners’ Association. But Travel Association of India’s Shah, like many others, said the count could dip after July. “This (April to June) is vacation time,” he said, but added: “People have a perception there will be monsoon in July and August here, but that is not the case. We have good weather here. If they are properly informed, I think the flow will continue.”