The owners of Srinagar’s famous shikaras, or boats, are optimistic, desperately waiting for a turnaround. They believe a good tourism season will bring cheers in 2021, if indications from the past few months are anything to go by. “If all goes well, we might see some recovery…The last two to three months have given us hope,” says Ahsan Chisti, deputy director of the tourism department.
The tourism season in Kashmir generally starts in April with tulips in bloom, and ends in November. There is some activity in January with snow lovers thronging the Valley. Tourism activities came to almost a standstill due to the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic last year. The year before, in August, the Centre’s move to abrogate Article 370, which gave special status to the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), and the subsequent restrictions announced as a precautionary measure impacted the sector.
For thousands, a lot depends on this tourism season. In Srinagar, shikara owners to hoteliers to cab drivers narrate their plight: how they have to beg people to take a boat ride, how they slashed rates of hotel rooms to get some business, and how they have sold their cars to stay afloat. They are awaiting a fresh gush of air in the struggling sector, pinning their hopes on a new beginning in 2021. For them, things could get better in the days to come.
Chisti says the tourist inflow at the Srinagar airport so far this year has been encouraging. He attributes it to heavy snowfall in parts of the Valley — which bolstered winter tourism. The tourist destination of Gulmarg continues to witness snowfall this month.
Hotelier Zahoor Ahmad had to retrench his staff when the going got tough.
“Snow lovers from all over the country have started coming…They probably caught visuals of the snow on TV and social media, and next, they were in Gulmarg,” he says.
“Every day 1,000-1,500 tourists are flying into Srinagar. This bodes well for the sector, considering our season hasn’t begun yet,” Chisti tells News18 on the banks of the popular tourist attraction, Dal Lake in Srinagar.
As Chisti speaks, a group of two dozen tourists can be seen getting off a luxury bus. Young couples are blowing kisses at each other and pouting for pictures, keeping the lake famous for its shikaras in the backdrop.
According to official figures, over 45,000 tourists have visited Kashmir in the first two months of 2021, already 3,000 more than the entire last year.
Broke and bruised, cab driver Ghulam Najar hopes goodluck would knock on him.
The Valley hosted over and around a million tourists each year from 2008-2013, and then again in 2017 and 2018. In 2019, half a million tourists visited Kashmir in the first seven months, before the Article 370 move, which also bifurcated J&K into two Union Territories — Jammu and Kashmir with a legislative assembly and Ladakh without one.
Chisti says his department has been proactive in reaching out to tourists. It networked with travel agents and the media to spread a positive word about the Valley and its beautiful landscape, and to convince tourists across the country that it is a safe destination.
The department is organising festivals at a tulip garden and famous almond park called Badamvaer. The blossoms drive tourists and locals in huge number to such parks.
“We opened Sonamarg and Doodpathri picnic spots much ahead of schedule (in March instead of April), clearing snow on the roads. Even the Leh Highway is through. And that is helping a great deal,” Chisti adds. “I am glad to share that Gulmarg is packed. Pahalgam, too, is having a good footfall.”
But those in the tourism industry wonder if that would turn the tide in their favour after difficult times.
Gulmarg packed, Srinagar off colour
Hotel owners and tourism officials say Gulmarg is sold out till April, till the time the snow will last in the meadow.
“The snow art exhibition, winter festival and recent Khelo India Games (featuring winter sports activities) attracted more tourists to the place,” Roshan Khayal, a noted sports commentator and organiser of Khelo India, told this reporter recently.
Imran Ahmad, manager of the only five-star Kyber hotel in Gulmarg, says he is happy with the clientele. “This time high-end tourists are visiting Kashmir. We are happy and hope it sustains,” he says.
Mohammad Latief Bhat, president of Chamber of Commerce and Industries, Kashmir chapter (CCIK), cites two reasons behind this. Europe and America were out of bounds due to Covid-19 and Kashmir was the only choice available for the affluent class here, he says. The resumption of flights to and from Srinagar also helped a great deal, he adds.
Bhat, however, throws in a word of caution, saying while Gulmarg is doing well, Srinagar is still off colour.
With a capacity of 45,000 beds (it includes all categories of hotels, boathouses and guest homes), Srinagar hoteliers are not exuding the same degree of confidence as their counterparts in Gulmarg or Pahalgam, where only 2,200 and 8,000 hotel rooms are available, respectively.
“Even if there are 2,000 arrivals per day, how is it going to help people in Srinagar? I agree it will give us some hope, but for real business, more tourist flow is a must. More so after two bad seasons where we suffered extensive losses,” Bhat says.
Till June 2019, planes and comfort coaches carrying thousands of excited tourists would touch Srinagar every day. The tourism department was anticipating the 1.2 million record arrivals of 2016 would be broken. Debates were underway on the need to increase bed capacity for high-end tourists.
But the Article 370 decision was announced on August 5, with the government stressing that the move will usher in development in the militancy-hit region in the long run. Security forces were on the ground to deal with any possible fallout and restrictions were imposed even before the announcement. And then came Covid-19 the next year, disrupting lives and creating a new normal of social distancing, mask wearing and curtailed travels, among others.
A CCIK report last year pegged losses over 18 months (July 2019 to the end of 2020) at Rs 18,000 crore, and estimated that more than 5 lakh jobs were lost. Hotel operators were quick to add that they had to shed 50%-75% of their work force.
“Our business has given us tremendous strain and distress. We are fed up and want a quick and honourable exit,” says Zahoor Ahmad Tramboo, owner of the famous Shahenshah Palace in Srinagar. The exquisite lake view hotel boasted of hosting the Indian and West Indies teams in 1980s.
“We could sell only 500 rooms in entire 2020. We have 74 rooms, including suites that remained unsold,” he says. “Had we not rented out the front annexe of the hotel to a private bank, we would have shut the shop forever.”
“From 80 staffers to 14; we have sent back people who worked with us for 40 years. I feel so guilty but what could I do? They needed work for feed their families,” he says.
“The rate of hotel occupancy in the last two years cannot even repay the electricity bills and salary of my 14 staffers. I have been borrowing from friends to pay my overheads and staff,” he adds.
Many hoteliers say last two seasons have forced them to give up on tourism and switch to other businesses. Some hotels have been converted into tuition centres, some house government officials, and some function as private clinics.
“The sector is doomed. We are looking for buyers. We cannot even afford the upkeep of the properties,” says Bhat, the CCIK president who runs a hotel at Lal Chowk in Srinagar. Bhat says had he not started a restaurant, he would have struggled badly.
The Misri brothers seek refuge in the hills. They have found joy in cycling.
The Misri brothers, Maqsood and Imtiyaz, run three hotels jointly in Srinagar’s Rajbagh area. They say they have stopped waiting for tourists because “it is pointless to bank on tourism, which has been a suspect”. “We didn’t want to live on false hopes,” says Imtiyaz.
Two of their hotels have registered with the estates department and volunteer to accommodate government officials at concessional rates. “A room that would once fetch Rs 1,500-2,000 rupees per night is sold at Rs 300-Rs 500 rupees. It is better to work than be sorry,” Imtiyaz says.
Maqsood, who is the general secretary of a leading hotel body in Kashmir, says: “Yes, we don’t quote the regular hotel rates, but who cares? At least our hotels are booked for months even if we earn less. We do run a mess for the boarders and that compensates us a bit.”
The Misri brothers, fourth-generation hoteliers, are avid hikers and mountain bikers, and they say the mountains keep them sane in the midst of stress. “The hotel business is so unpredictable. It makes us tense and that is why we seek refuge in the nature,” says Imtiyaz.
Small players, bigger issues
Ghulam Nabi, 65, says he could not afford to repair his shikara this spring. He says 2019 and 2020 have delivered a severe blow to shikara owners.
“There have been many days in the last 20 months when I could not earn a rupee,” he says. “It has been a fight for survival.”
Every morning, Nabi and hundreds of shikara owners anchor their nicely decorated boats on the banks of the Dal Lake in the hope of ferrying tourists and taking home some money.
Nabi lives on the backwaters of the Dal Lake with his four daughters, son and wife. “There were times when I wasn’t sure how to buy groceries,” he says.
“And then friends would come and silently put money in my hand… I had no money to pay for tuition of my children. I managed to survive.”
On average, he used to earn Rs 15,000 a month, but he says he could barely make Rs 3000-5,000 a month last year. “There were times when I would literally beg locals walking along the Dal boulevard to take a boat ride,” he says.
Cab owners such as Ghulam Nabi Najar, who has driven tourists for 40 years, too, have faced the brunt. “I hate to tell this that I had to sell two cabs…in the last two years to stay afloat.”