By: Majid Maqbool

Kashmir, simultaneously one of the world’s most storied tourist destinations, with its fabled lotus blossoms in its lakes and its fields of yellow mustard, and one of the world’s most troubled regions, is facing disaster from the absence of visitors in the wake of the latest cycle of violence.

Despite promotional campaigns launched by the state tourism department and tour operators earlier this year in different states, tourists have mostly stayed away in the aftermath of an attack in the Pulwama District in February, when a lone suicide bomber attacked an Indian Central Reserve Police Force convoy, killing 40 officers and triggering a tense standoff between India and Pakistan, which have contested the region since independence from Great Britain in 1947.

Despite its staggering beauty, Jammu & Kashmir faces problems that seemingly are beyond solution. Both India and Pakistan claim the entirety of the state. India controls about 55 percent of the land area and 70 percent of its population. Pakistan controls 30 percent with China claiming the other 15 percent. Control of the state, once a part of the Sikh empire, triggered the Indo-Pakistani war of 1947.

Cycles of violence have troubled the state since that time, with the Indian Army repeatedly accused of atrocities and Pakistan accused of terrorist attacks although in fact the attacks have never been directed at the tourism sector. Officials say the state has always been a safe destination despite the political situation. According to a recent report by India’s ministry of home affairs, not a single incident of violence has been recorded against foreign tourists, including female tourists, in the past two years in Jammu and Kashmir. During the same period, 284 crimes were reported against tourists in other Indian states.

Eventually, India and Pakistan must engage in a meaningful internal dialogue with all stakeholders to peacefully resolve the Kashmir dispute.

Despite those troubles, the beauty of the Kashmir Valley, nestled between the Himalayas and the Pir Panjal mountain range, has continued to draw visitors against all the odds – until now, with hoteliers, tourism guides hoping this will eventually pass.  Most of the hotels in almost all the tourist locations and hill resorts are empty. The representatives of travel agencies and hotel owners say tourism is down by almost 80 to 90 percent this year.

“Even after the Pulwama incident, we tried to revive tourism and did many promotional shows in other states hoping more tourists would visit the valley, but there was no positive response,” said Mehboob Mir, the general secretary of the Kashmir Hotels and Restaurants Association. “Even bookings done in January were canceled and we didn’t see much of new bookings by tourists from other states for this summer season.”

According to Mir, tourism in Kashmir is down by 80 percent this year as the sector witnesses its worst phase in recent memory. “Many hoteliers are even selling their properties in view of the depressing tourism scenario,” he said, adding that they are unable to survive in the sector leave alone make a profit and keep employees. “What will they do with these properties when they remain empty most of the times as fewer tourists visit the valley? How will they earn enough to pay for their hotel staff?”

Recently, a delegation of the Jammu Kashmir Hoteliers Club (JKHC), an apex body of leading hoteliers of Jammu & Kashmir state, called on Governor Satya Pal Malik to demand reimbursement of Goods and Service Tax funds for the tourism industry, which they said is on the verge of collapse.

“For the last almost three years we are running cash losses and were left with no resources to pump into the establishments. Hoteliers have been keeping the hotels open against all odds. The current year has shown depressing and disappointing tourist footfall that it had become impossible for them to keep the hotels open and have the employees on board,” said chairman Mushtaq Ahmad Chaya, who led the delegation.

Declining Tourist Footfall

A look at annual tourist arrivals from the Department of Tourism, inflows have been falling for five years. In 2014, a total of 1.14 million domestic tourists visited, falling to 898,861 in 2015.  While in 2016 the number of domestic tourists increased to 1.22 million, they fell again in 2017, then further to only 785,173 last year.

This year, only 144,229 domestic tourists have visited the valley along with 22,525 foreigners. That included just 26,224 for February and March in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack. While domestic visitors have continued to wane, however, foreign tourists have climbed steadily, to 56,029 in 2018.

Empty, Closed Hotels

Wahid Bazaz, the president of Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Owners Federation said there is no hope of recovering from the losses, affecting all the allied sectors that depend on visitors.

“We have around 30 percent of tourism right now. In previous weeks it was not even 15 percent. This year it’s particularly bad,” said Bazaz, adding the few bookings they do see are possibly because of their personal efforts and contacts.

“Almost 70 percent of the hotels are closed in Pahalgam as there are not enough tourists around this season they could cater to,” Bazaz said. “Many hotels have been forced to cut down on their hotel staff as well as they can’t even afford to pay them.”

The main tourist season, which extends from spring up to  June 10, is almost over without significant bookings or other tourism-related economic activity. “In the coming months some pilgrim tourists arrive but the main summer season during which hundreds of thousands of people associated with the sector earn their livelihood is almost over now,” he said.  

Foreign tourists from Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Thailand have been visiting the valley in recent years despite adverse travel advisories as tour operators and travel agencies have poured resources into luring them, “but tourists from European countries and the US are not visiting Kashmir in significant numbers as they follow their country’s travel advisories which are still adverse for Jammu and Kashmir region,” he says.

Disappointing Tourist Season

A weak economy, demonetization, the imposition of a goods and services tax have combined with the aftermath of the Pulwama incident, according to Javaid Burza, the president of Pahalgam Hotel and Restaurant Owners

“We also don’t have a popular government here in the office so that we could push the government to take some steps to revive tourism. The roads are also very bad across the valley which is discouraging for tourists traveling via road,” he said. “It’s all adding up to a depressing tourist season.”

Burza, who also runs Hotel Mount View in Pahalgam, says he has had to curtail his hotel staff by half. “We are not even able to maintain the hotel properties and cover the basic costs in this situation leave alone employing hotel staff and making enough money to survive,” he said.

Anti-Kashmir rhetoric and negative portrayal of Kashmir by Indian news channels after the Pulwama incident have also contributed to the decline. All the tourist bookings at Burza’s hotel in Pahalgam before the Pulwama incident were canceled in the aftermath of the incident and in the following months as the situation deteriorated.

“It was all downhill from there and there have been no major bookings in the following months,” he says. “I don’t think we can recover anything now as this year’s tourist season is almost over now.”

Ashfaq Siddiq Dug, the president of Travel Agents Association of Kashmir (TAAK), the biggest association of tour and travel agents in the region, says bookings for the summer season open in January for the April to June 15 main tourist season. That was badly hit by the Pulwama incident and the subsequent national election season which led to cancellations of previous bookings.

“Apart from that, tourism is already affected in Kashmir due to our internal problems and negative portrayal of Kashmir in the national media every time there’s some violent incident here,” said Dug.

“Hotels in major tourist resorts of the valley are mostly vacant as tourists aren’t visiting in good numbers,” he said, painting a grim picture of the economy. “You’ll find empty rooms in most of the hotels in these resorts.”

Majid Maqbool (maqbool.majid@gmail.com) is a Kashmir-based journalist.