Along Boulevard Road on the banks of the Dal Lake, dozens of carefree tourists, including women in tracksuits or shorts, can be seen walking or jogging in the early mornings or late evenings.
Some take shikara rides to go crisscrossing through houseboats into the interiors of the lake. For an hour-long shikara ride, they pay Rs 800.
On Sunday August 4, opposite ghat number 9 of Dal Lake, Le Délice restaurant —commonly known as the French Bakery— is chock-a-block with patrons, mostly foreign and local tourists. Umar Bhat, 41, manager of the restaurant, says he has never seen such a tourist rush in his life.
“I have been in the tourism industry for the past decade, but this kind of tourism season is unparalleled,” says Bhat with a smile on his face.
Outside the restaurant, a Gujarati tourist had parked his Royal Enfield bike with a Tricolour on it. All across Boulevard Road, government offices flew the Tricolour.
Over the past two years, a number of bunkers have been built across Srinagar, along with special search road blocks. Security forces' vehicles with CCTVs mounted atop are seen in large numbers in Srinagar. All shopkeepers are supposed to have CCTV cameras.
On the evening of September 6, two militants were killed in an encounter with security forces in the Anantnag district of Kashmir. Security forces had launched a cordon and search operation in the Poshkreeri area of Anantnag district, following information about the presence of the militants there. The police say the search operation turned into an encounter after the militants opened fire on the security forces, who retaliated and killed two militants.
But encounters don’t impact tourism in the state. As tourism is considered a mainstay of Kashmir’s economy, political parties, whether mainstream or separatists, have always welcomed tourists.
Around 90 km from Srinagar, at the famous tourist destination Pahalgam, all hotels are booked. Hoteliers say there had been a slight fall in tourist rush during the Amarnath Yatra, due to the strict security restrictions on the movement of tourists visiting the Valley. Around 3.65 lakh pilgrims visited the Amarnath shrine this year. But the hoteliers say tourism will shoot up again.
Riyaz Ahmad Lone, who runs a trekking company and a hotel in Pahalgam, says last year a number of high-end tourists started visiting the Valley as Europe, South East Asia and other countries were closed due to Covid-19.
“They found Kashmir cheaper and also breathtakingly beautiful. This year they came again and they are now going to be regular to Kashmir. Covid-19 lockdown around the world opened Kashmir for high-end Indian tourists,” says Lone.
On August 2, 2019, the Jammu and Kashmir government issued an order asking tourists and pilgrims to leave J&K and Ladakh as soon as possible, inflicting the worst blow to the tourism sector in years. Three days later, on August 5, 2019, amid a communication blockade, siege and arrest of thousands of people in Kashmir including three former chief ministers, the government revoked Article 370 and Article 35A of the Constitution of India, bifurcated Jammu and Kashmir and downgraded it into two Union Territories —(1) Jammu and Kashmir, (2) Ladakh— and closed Kashmir for months together.
Soon after it, UK, Australia, USA and Canada introduced Kashmir into their travel advisories. Since then, not a single country has lifted or modified their travel advisory to Kashmir. The next year was lost to the Covid-19 pandemic. Tourists started coming to Kashmir in 2021. Official data reveals that 6.6 lakh tourists visited Kashmir last year, bringing the hotel industry back to life after it remained shut in the wake of the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019. It was a considerable increase from 41,000 in 2020.
In April this year, Kashmir received nearly 2,80,000 tourists, the highest in the past three decades. All the top hotels in Kashmir are currently booked, and Gondola, Asia’s longest and highest cable car in the ski-resort of Gulmarg is seeing a large number of visitors every day. Tourism officials say more than 15 lakh tourists visited Kashmir this year, excluding pilgrims.
Nasir Shah, president of the Travel Agents Association of Kashmir (TAAK) says the number of tourists who visited Kashmir is not more than 15 lakh this year.
“What we saw this year is purely leisure and adventure tourism. It benefits everyone. Such tourism helps tour operators, hoteliers, houseboat owners, tourist transporters, shikara- and pony-walas, adventure sports units, guides, trekking staff, and dealers, unlike pilgrims who don’t spend anything,” says Shah.
As tourism is seeing an unprecedented surge, the government has launched 75 homestays in rural areas to promote rural tourism. In Delhi, the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Nityanand Rai, said in the Rajya Sabha that an estimated 1.06 crore tourists have visited Jammu and Kashmir from January-July 3 this year. They include pilgrims who visited the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine in Katra in Jammu and Amarnath yatris. Officials say 15 lakh is the number of tourists who visited the Valley and it is the highest number in the past decade.
Lt Governor Manoj Sinha asks regional leaders to acknowledge the number of tourists visiting Kashmir. He says within a year, his government “will end terrorism” and make peace permanent in J&K.
“The region can’t grow without peace. Some people are wearing dark glasses. They can’t see development taking place in J&K. The Parliament was told that 1 crore tourists visited J&K this year. Srinagar airport saw 110 flights operating in a day. Forty-four flights operated from Jammu airport as opposed to its record of six a day,” says Sinha.
There are indeed long queues of tourists at the Srinagar airport. Restaurants are full of tourists, and drivers bring vehicles from Punjab and other places to ferry tourists but still, tourism is not an indicator of normalcy in Kashmir.
“Tourists have been coming to Kashmir in far greater numbers than before and we have had instances in the past when tourists had to stay in taxis and buses for want of rooms but we have all along been saying that tourism is not normalcy. It’s a barometer of economic activity,” says National Conference leader and the spokesman Tanvir Sadiq.
Normalcy, says Sadiq, is the absence of fear, the absence of terror, the inability of militants to strike at will, and the presence of a democratic rule.
Iltija Mufti, daughter of former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, says it is the administration wearing rose-tinted glasses that are missing the wood for the trees.
She says, “Tourism isn’t a marker for normalcy. J&K continues to be under siege not only because of the unprecedented surveillance and extra deployment of armed forces but because of the atmosphere of oppression and deliberate attempts to choke all spaces of dissent.
“Targeted killings are on the rise along with a surge in local militant recruitment. Democratic and individual rights continue to be under deep freeze to maintain this facade of normalcy.”