Kashmir is witnessing a record footfall of tourists this year. After a slump of three years, nearly two lakh tourists visited the Valley in March alone. And between January and 15 May 2022, it saw 700,000 visitors, the highest in the last 10 years. Such is the rush this time that hotels are fully booked till mid-June this year, industry sources said.
The boom has come as a ray of hope to recover losses of the past three years, triggered by the February 2019 suicide attack in South Kashmir’s Pulwama killing around 40 CRPF personnel.
Athar Yamin, the owner of Earth Explorers Travel and Tours, told Firstpost that thousands of bookings were cancelled after the attack. Then, the lockdown in August in the wake of the abrogation of Article 370 and successive lockdowns during the pandemic brought tourism to a grinding halt.
“The number of tourists visiting the Valley plummeted drastically. It felt like Kashmir Valley as a tourist destination was largely boycotted,” Yamin, who is also the former general secretary of the Travel Agents Society of Kashmir (TASK), said.
“For three years, we earned nothing,” Bilal Ahmad Tethroo, a shikara owner in his late 40s, told Firstpost. “Many ferrymen sold their boats because they could not afford to maintain them, and the meagre amount of money we had went into looking after basic necessities.”
This year, however, is offering much-needed respite to the businesses in Kashmir. “So many tourists are visiting the Valley, and since March, the crowd is getting only bigger,” Tethroo said, while wishing this year brings him some decent profits.
Data from the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department and the Union Tourism Ministry indicate that the number of tourists between January and 15 May 2022 jumped to 700,000, the highest in the last 10 years. This is more than four times the 125,000 people seen in the same period last year.
On 4 April, the Srinagar International Airport experienced its busiest day ever in history, with 15,014 people travelling on 90 flights in and out of Kashmir. In Srinagar, almost all 60,000 hotel rooms that can accommodate nearly a lakh visitors are booked until the first week of June.
Yamin, in his 40s, hasn’t seen this rush before. His family has been in the travel business since 1975. “We are simply not able to manage things. This is beyond our capacity! We have to decline hundreds of queries, because there is no accommodation,” he said.
Ohana Holidays, a Srinagar-based travel agency, is swamped with the number of bookings doubling since march. Its owner, Mehreen Ali Chat, is moving fast to expand operations. “We are burdened by work and are left with no option but to expand the hiring,” she said, adding that she is hiring around 12 more employees to handle coordination and reservations.
With summers arriving, the government announced the Amarnath Yatra on a “much bigger” scale this year. Arrangements for the pilgrimage, to be held after a gap of two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic, were discussed at a meeting in Srinagar chaired on 11 April, by Union I&B ministry secretary Apurva Chandra.
“Expectations are that this year’s yatra will be twice the size than ever before,” Chandra told the reporters in Srinagar. The administration is preparing to welcome about eight lakh pilgrims to the cave shrine in south Kashmir.
The move will further bolster tourism in Kashmir. “We are utterly happy and our business is booming, and we are praying that the situation stays normal throughout the summer,” Gulzar Ahmed, 48, a local transport facilitator, said.
As per media reports citing a tourism ministry official, between October 2021 and March 2022, at least 80 lakh people visited the union territory.
Security on toes
Kashmir has in recent times seen targeted killings of Kashmiri Pandits, the latest being the murder of Rahul Bhat. Rahul Bhat, a Kashmiri Pandit government employee, was gunned down by terrorists inside his tehsil office in Chadoora town of central Kashmir's Budgam district last week. He became a clerk under the special employment package for migrants in 2010-11.
As per a report by PTI, 17 Kashmiri Pandits and non-locals have been killed by terrorists in the Valley since Article 370 was abrogated in August 2019. The article granted special status to the erstwhile state of J&K.
Recent violent incidents have caused local businesses to panic as they fear escalation would set a bad tone at the beginning of the already booming tourist season.
A senior police official in Srinagar told Firstpost that these were isolated incidents. “Security arrangements are robust and we are ensuring the safety of all,” the official said.
The author is a freelance writer based in Srinagar. Views expressed are personal.