Empty houseboats, vacant hotels and deserted resorts present a gloomy picture of Kashmir’s tourism sector which is going through one of its worst phases due to the prevailing situation after the Centre scrapped provisions of Article 370 of the Constitution and reorganised the state into two Union territories.
Kashmir has been facing unprecedented restrictions for nearly a month now, as normal life remains affected across the Valley with markets shut and public transport off the roads since August 5.
Days before announcing the decision on Article 370, the state government had asked all tourists in Kashmir to leave the Valley.
According to officials in the Tourist Department, about 20,000-25,000 visitors were present in the Valley, which was in its peak tourist season.
Since then, the Valley is without tourists, which has brought the industry — believed to be the backbone of Kashmir’s economy — to its knees.
Sonamarg — considered as the gateway to Ladakh region — is a picturesque resort in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district and usually remained crammed with visitors.
However, the resort looks deserted with most of the hotels, restaurants and shops closed for business.
A manager at a hotel said the only business they had was of a few local visitors putting up for a night or two.
“We have not seen tourists for the last few weeks now. There were a few of them here even after the advisory by the government. But after they left, we have had no tourists here. Only locals come for a night or two and then leave,” he said.
According to official figures, 1.74 lakh tourists visited Kashmir in June, followed by 1.52 lakh, including 3,403 foreigners, in July.
However, officials in the Tourism Department said the department has no record of tourist arrivals in August.
“We have no reports of any tourist arrival. There may have been a few of them, but we do not have any records,” Nisar Ahmad Wani, director of tourism, Kashmir told PTI.
Another official of the department, on the condition of anonymity, said while the department keeps no record of the domestic tourists because of the advisory which asked the visitors to leave, about 800 foreign tourists have been registered for the month.
“The state’s CID registers the foreigners, so that number is officially available. But, since there is a ban on tourists, the number of domestic tourist arrivals is not officially taken,” he said.
Stakeholders said the chances of revival of tourism in the Valley were bleak this year.
“Summer season is our peak season and now the winter is approaching and it is considered a dull tourist season. With the situation as it is, we do not see much chances of any revival this year or till March,” a travel agent said.
The famous Dal lake in Srinagar, which otherwise is a star attraction for the visitors, is calm and the only activity taking place there is of some locals trying their hands at angling.
“With tourist arrivals severely hit, the business is zero. The problem has been accentuated by the non-availability of internet. We cannot communicate. We do not even know the status of bookings confirmed before all this happened,” a reputed travel agent, who did not wish to be identified, said.
The travel agent — one of nearly 3,000 registered in Kashmir — said the tourism season began late this year due to the attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama in February in which 40 CRPF personnel were killed and then because of increased hostilities between India and Pakistan after the Balakot air strike.
“The business picked up in May-June and we were hopeful of a good season after the culmination of Amarnath Yatra as queries and bookings had increased in July. However, the prevailing situation has dealt a virtual death knell to the sector and bouncing back from it looks very difficult,” he said.
The official of the Tourism Department said hotels have asked their staff to leave till there was a turnaround in the situation.
“What will they give to their staff when they do not earn anything,” he said, adding that “while some big hotels have either relocated or sent most of their staff on deputation to other states, others have asked their employees to utilise their leaves till the situation improved”.
A reputed hotelier in Srinagar told PTI that job cuts were imminent if the current situation prolonged.
“We have no option other than that if the situation does not improve. I do not want to do it, but I will be forced to,” he said.
The loss of business has not only affected hoteliers or tour and travel agents, but houseboat owners, shikara walas, taxi operators and tourist guides.
“There are about 11,000 registered pony wallas who provide services in Gulmarg, Sonamarg or Pahalgam. We have about 5,000 shikara wallas, 2,100 sledge wallas, over 1300 tourist guides. They do not have work as of now,” the official said.
Some travel agencies have been forced to cut the salaries of their staff in order to avoid job cuts.
“We either had to expel some of our employees or go for reduction in the salary till business bounces back. So, at our agency, we took a collective decision of cutting down the salary of our staff by 30 per cent,” a travel agency owner said.
“We have taken loans from banks and we have to pay monthly installments. Wherefrom will we arrange that money?” houseboat owner Ahmad said, adding that he has to look at the possibility of trying his hands at an alternate source of income.