What, after all, is beauty without the beholder? A fabled ‘paradise’ on earth in full plumage is accustomed to have its charms reaffirmed by mere mortals every year. Yet in April, when Asia’s largest tulip garden in Srinagar was in full bloom, with over 1.3 million bulbs turned towards the sun, there were no tourists to witness the breathtaking sight. The only wanderers were local photojournalists, who went about forlornly in the empty garden spread over 80 acres of land, and situated on the banks of the Dal Lake. In comparison, 2,60,000 people visited this spot in a two-month period in 2019. COVID-19 had laid its petrifying fingers on the tourism in the new Union Territory.
Even the doughty Wahid Malik, president of the hotels and restaurant association of Kashmir, who had been mulishly optimistic about the potential of the Valley as a world-class tourist destination despite the violence and instability, has lost hope. “I don’t think tourists will return for a long time. COVID-19 lockdown was a deathblow to any hopes of a revival in the sector,” he tells Outlook. His pessimism is shared by many others who are directly associated with the sector.
The growing belief is that nothing will work without a serious commitment from the Central and local governments--a combination of a revival-cum-stimulus package to woo back visitors holds the greatest hope for a turnaround. Sheikh Ashiq, president, Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries, estimates the loss due to the ongoing lockdown, which started willy-nilly with the revocation of Article 370 in August 2019, and continued through the COVID-19 scare, to be Rs 30,000 crore. “If there is no timely intervention, our economy will end,” he adds ominously.
The local administration mostly believes that after the change in Kashmir’s constitutional status, the cues need to come from the Centre. A senior tourism official, for instance, opines that one of the immediate options can be to include tourism companies within the overall ambit of MSMEs. Thus, the former will be in a position to take advantage of the huge funds allocated to MSMEs as part of the Centre’s Rs 2,000,000 crore stimulus package to deal with the awful stasis brought on by the Covid crisis and revive the economy.
In addition, small, but crucial, steps can be taken in the short term to help the sector. “Overall, the concept of Atmanirbhar Bharat needs to be broad-based to include tourism. At the micro level, local issues plague the companies. These include, among others, delays in GST reimbursement, possible one-time amnesty to hoteliers towards payment of power dues and further moratorium on credit along with issuance of soft low-interest loans to improve liquidity flows,” adds Ashiq.
However, another opportunity beckons, depending on whether the Centre and the local regime decide to go ahead with the annual Amarnath Yatra, which is scheduled in July-August this year. Some feel that if the pilgrims are allowed to proceed despite the Covid scare, policy-makers should simultaneously remove restrictions on the entry of other tourists. “Let the hospitality sector be educated and trained about social distancing, and health and safety issues, so that the visitors are not deterred,” explains a state official.
As Nasir Shah, chairperson, J&K Pilgrim and Leisure Tour Operators’ Forum, puts it: “Remember, it was the government that issued an advisory to tourists against visiting Kashmir and drove them away last year. Hence, it is imperative for the government to do something to revive it. One of the measures can be to provide insurance cover for tourists, who are willing to visit Kashmir in the near future.” The UT, adds Shah, can establish free COVID-19 testing facilities in Srinagar and other tourist destinations.
Not just for tourists, insurance for the beleaguered tourism sector can prove to be the key to woo travelers back. Saddam Zaroo, who runs RK Sarovar, a hotel in Srinagar, explains how insurance constitutes a business’s lifeline during trying times. Whenever events such as fires, earthquakes, floods and public health crisis lead to closures, insurance cover takes care of losses. Unfortunately, in Kashmir, this hasn’t happened efficiently. The process was hampered by politics and bureaucracy within the insurance firms. “We filed several claims related to business losses for long, and this is the time when we want returns from the insurance companies. This will only happen if the government issues a notification, and urges the latter to make prompt payments to hotels that have filed claims. This can help us sustain our businesses for some time,” explains Zaroo. This will provide a breathing space to a number of players, and allow them to prepare a plan to get visitors back in the forthcoming winter season.
Sadly, Covid isn’t the only contributor to Kashmir’s economic problems. Tourism experts believe that they started in 2016, when widespread and debilitating unrest broke over the killing of Burhan Wani, a Hizb-ul Mujahideen commander. In 2017, a report by the then state’s finance ministry concluded that its economy suffered a loss of more than Rs 16,000 crore during the six-month long tension in the Valley. “Since then, we have struggled. Our issues are more complicated. Small issues, like regular shutdowns of Internet portals for prolonged periods, impact us as we lose communication with our clients,” complains a hotelier.
The situation worsened in August 2019 after the Centre revoked Article 370, arrested thousands, including three former chief ministers, laid a communication and physical blockade of the territory, and divided the state into two Union Territories. Around the same time, an official advisory asked tourists and pilgrims to leave the Valley. Hoteliers and houseboat owners recall how the police, accompanied by tourism officials, conducted midnight raids, knocked on doors of the guests, and asked them to go.
As communication restrictions eased, serious efforts were made to revive tourism. The key initiatives were taken by the industry. “In the winter months of 2019, we went to different states and convinced tour operators that Kashmir was safe as a travel destination. We toured Gujarat and Maharashtra, and received good response. It seemed that visitors were willing to come. Hotels were booked by operators from April 2020 onwards. However, the COVID-19 lockdown shattered all hope,” explains Malik.
During the current lockdown, the regime decided to help houseboat owners with a monthly compensation of Rs 1,000. The Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association rejected it. “There are more than 1,200 houseboats. We spend Rs 100,000 a year to maintain them each. The government offered us a pittance – a monthly sum of Rs 1,000. It was a joke, and an insult to our woes,” laments a houseboat owner, Tariq Patloo. The association also established a trust to take care of the dietary needs of the poor families solely dependent on tourism around the Dal Lake.
Clearly, policy makers at both the national and local levels need to devise a specific strategy to change the fortunes of the tourism sector in Kashmir. The fact remains that its economy depends on it, as well as the livelihoods of a large proportion of the population. Kneejerk reactions will not work; only a practical blueprint can enable all to regain this paradise.
By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar