File photo of stationed wooden boats (shikaras) on Dal Lake in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir (KM/Umar Ganie)
The process of Unlock 2.0 has started in Jammu and Kashmir and it is good to see the return of a few business activities in the Valley after around a month of COVID lockdown. At the same time, a handful of tourists too can be spotted at places like Dal Lake. The arrival of few visitors is a good omen for the battered tourism sector that will be looking forward to resuming business after three consecutive lockdowns from 2019. However, it is very important that the authorities do not repeat past mistakes and welcome tourists while following the COVID-related safety protocols. The local stakeholders of the tourism sector including the travel agents and hoteliers held a meeting in Srinagar city recently to discuss preparations and the way forward. The stakeholders have already impressed upon the government to make Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) tests mandatory for intending tourists and not to allow entry of any unvaccinated visitors to Kashmir. They pointed out that they were ‘responsible tourism players’ that believe that ‘life is paramount and business comes next’. At the same time, the stakeholders batted for vaccination of the local population especially those associated with the tourism sector. They also suggested allowing the entry of tourists in a regulated manner. The suggestions and concerns of the stakeholders are genuine and the government should incorporate the same before stepping up the tourism promotional campaign. There has to be a specific plan over conducting of tests on arrival and quarantine period especially in case COVID positive tourists arrive.
Tourism Department, Kashmir has already started a vaccination drive for the stakeholders including houseboat owners, shikara-wallas, hotel staff, and others. The department is also working on capacity building on protocols to handle tourists and ensure their safety during their stay in Kashmir. The measures are intended for the persons dealing with the tourists such as the hotel and restaurant staff and other people handling the tourists. The steps are welcome but allowing large-scale entry of tourists all of a sudden without vaccination of RT-PCR tests will waste the above efforts. Earlier this year, there were huge crowds at tourist spots like Tulip Garden. Other gardens too were crowded with both tourists and locals and there seemed to be no restrictions on their entries to the public spots. The J&K government should also study how other states and countries are opening to tourists in a phased manner. Goa Tourism Minister Manohar Ajgaonkar had recently said that tourism activities should resume only after the entire population of the coastal state was completely vaccinated against COVID-19. The tourism industry can resume all its activities once the entire population of the state is ‘fully vaccinated’ with both doses of the vaccines, Ajgaonkar had said. One can also notice that several countries are taking their time to open as they are weighing the pros and cons of allowing tourists. Even as Spain and Greece opened their borders on Monday to all vaccinated travelers, the rest of Europe is making preparations to receive tourists from July 1 onwards. The European Commission had recently reviewed preparations ‘to allow verifying certificates (COVID-passports) in a secure and privacy-friendly way’. Therefore, receiving tourists in COVID times is a challenge for the entire world, and Jammu and Kashmir too should allow resumption of tourism activities in a phased manner. There is no need to rush. We need to work on safety measures first.
At the same time, the tourism sector needs financial support from the government too that can come in the form of revival packages. As per the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCC&I) estimates, 500,000 jobs were lost in the aftermath of the Centre’s decision to abrogate Article 370 on August 5, 2019. It said 70,000 jobs were lost in the tourism sector alone. One can argue that the tourism sector all over the world has been affected in the wake of COVID lockdowns. The tourism sector may not be the backbone of the Kashmir economy but it always gets hit the most. Earlier too, the sector has taken a severe hit especially during the street protests and unrests in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2016. The September 2014 floods too had dented the sector and it is yet to revive fully from the jolts of the past. All businesses in the Valley suffer if there is a lockdown but the tourism season in Kashmir peaks only during the spring and summer months. During this period only, the stakeholders do the maximum business. During the winter months, arrivals are on the lesser side. The revival packages should especially be targeted towards benefitting the shikara-walas, drivers, and other weaker sections of society. The transport sector too has suffered huge losses and the cab drivers that would ferry tourists have been sitting idle for a long time. Similarly, the government also needs to reimagine its promotional campaigns that are usually held across the country. The focus of these promotional campaigns in the past has been on telling tour operators and intending tourists that Kashmir was a ‘safe’ place to visit. The assertions were made as tourists were reluctant to visit Kashmir due to security concerns. Now, the conditions are different. The promotional campaigns also have to COVID specific now. While inviting tourists, a message should go out that only vaccinated persons and those willing to follow COVID safety protocols will be welcomed. The intending tourists too need to be assured that the stakeholders in Kashmir valley would follow the COVID safety protocols.