August 2017 News

Kashmir Tourism Going Through Worst Crisis In Last Two Decades

3 August 2017
The Economic Times
Hakeem Irfan

Srinagar: The tourism sector in Kashmir is going through its worst crisis in over two decades, with many hotels closing down, staff being laid off and players in the industry looking for alternative businesses or even job opportunities. Tourism, considered as the most visible asset of Jammu and Kashmir's economy, has been pushed to a cold dark corner, where things are going from bad to worse as the situation in the valley remains tense. Even with hotels offering discounts as high as 70%, occupancy rates are less than 5% at a time when the tourist season is in its fag end. In houseboats on Dal Lake, Nigeen Lake and river Jehlum, it is as low as 1-2%. The J&K government, which is spending huge money to advertise Kashmir and trying to get it back on the regional and global tourist map, has not managed any notable success. It has already offered a discount of around 50% at all government properties, but is unable to get considerable attention. The government is desperate to revive tourism, as that can be shown also as a sign of normalcy in otherwise volatile Valley. The government figures, meanwhile, reveal a drastic drop in tourist inflows, to around 4.03 lakh in 2016 from 11.71 lakh in 2013 (excluding Amarnath yatris). This year, industry players are estimating the number to be about half of last year. The stakeholders in tourism industry also complain that the travel agents in metro cities don't promote Kashmir as a tourism destination, due to which there is acute decline in tourists from New Delhi, Maharashtra, Gujarat and other big cities. 'We are sitting idle for the last 400 days. For the first time we are facing the crisis of this magnitude since the early 1990s,' president of the Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Owners Federation, Javed Burza, told ET. 'Business is so low that we can't even count percentage to make sense of these negligible numbers.' A hotel in Srinagar has closed 70 out of its 100 rooms and plans to close the remaining 30 soon. 'He may just run the restaurant now,' a hotelier told ET. Another leading hotel, in Gulmarg, has laid off more than 50 staff recently. Those still employed are either not getting regular salaries or have taken a cut. Several tourism players including hoteliers, travel agents and houseboat owners said the 'unresolved political issue of Kashmir leading to uncertainty' and the electronic media's coverage of the developments were damaging the tourism industry. The continuous negative coverage, especially of violence which is not the overwhelming reality in Kashmir, has stalled tourist inflow to Kashmir, said Mushtaq Ahmad Chaya, owner of the Mushtaq Group of hotels and chairman of the Hoteliers Club. Chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, who holds the portfolio of tourism, has repeatedly urged people to visit Kashmir and has even batted for cross border tourism. Earlier this year, Hurriyat leaders had also appealed tourists to visit Kashmir and explore both the beauty of the place and the reality on ground. But other than the Amarnath Yatra cavalcades, there is no visible tourist activity in Kashmir. 'If we have 500 employees we are not even able to manage salary of 100 of them. Many of us have to borrow money from subsidiary businesses outside the state to run the infrastructure here. Besides we have rents and loans to pay as well. Government should do something about it,' Chaya added. In J&K, five lakh people are estimated to be directly involved in the tourism industry. Businesses linked with tourism, including handicrafts, restaurants and transporters, are also facing a financial crisis. Both Burza and Chaya believe that after 2014 floods and 2016 political unrest, when tourism in Kashmir was expecting revival this year, the policies like demonetization and implementation of GST scuttled all the hopes for at least a year. 'Some of us have not even entertained our first customer this season till now,' said Ghulam Rasool Siah, chairman of the Houseboat Owners Association. 'There is no option but to relieve the staff to manage expenses. Then you have to think of loans as well.' There are about 925 houseboats of various classes floating on Kashmir's lakes and rivers. Many Shikara owners are now selling vegetables, while travel agents have shut their offices to save rent and are looking for other careers. They operate from home to entertain a rare booking. The central government, under the Prime Ministers Development Package, has sanctioned Rs 2,000 crore for the tourism sector in J&K. On Monday, a central team headed by home secretary Rajiv Mehrishi held meetings with officials of the state tourism department.