Srinagar: The tourism industry in Kashmir, which had pinned all hopes on spring arrivals after witnessing a decade-low turnout of tourists following the abrogation of Article 370, is now suffering another wreckage in the wake of worldwide Coronavirus outbreak.
Tourism players in the region claim that all their hopes of business revival have been dashed with the outbreak of COVID-19. Following the outbreak, all expected arrivals are cancelling their bookings for the spring season, which marks the beginning of the new tourist season for the region.
Last year in August, the government had banned all tourists from travelling to Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370 and bifurcating Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories. Even as the government lifted the ban after two months in October, the tourism sector, however, could hardly recover from the losses it suffered due to continues restrictions in the region and a severe communication blockade that lasted for over six months.
"We had pinned all our hopes on tourist arrivals this year and we were optimistic with significant bookings but, the corona outbreak has reversed everything," Tariq Ahmad, a businessman working in the tourism industry, told NewsClick.
The novel coronavirus outbreak which has been declared as a global pandemic by World Health Organisation (WHO) has killed over 7,500 patients and infected more than 1,90,000 worldwide.
Also read: COVID-19 Shakes Tourism Industry of UP, Agra Records 60% Drop in Visitors
As a preventive measure, the civil administration in Kashmir on Tuesday ordered closing down of all educational institutions including schools and colleges and directed closing of all hostels, canteens, recreational parks, food courts, restaurants, clubs and all activities that involve gathering of people till further notice.
Tourists visit Kashmir particularly in the spring season between March and April to witness the almond and tulip blooms as the government opens recreational parks like Tulip Garden and Badamvaer and Mughal Gardens like Nishat and Shalimar for general public and tourists.
The Tulip Garden, which is thrown open for tourists and general public around March 25 every year will not be opened this year, first time since it was opened in 2008. The garden alone receives a footfall of over 2 lakh visitors every year to witness the bloom of lakhs of tulips at the foothills of Zabarwan peaks in Srinagar.
According to official data from Department of Tourism, only ,8182 tourists including 1,699 foreigners visited Kashmir in February this year, which is less than half of visitors who arrived here last year. Till March 15, as many as 4,208 visitors including 827 foreigners visited the region. The numbers, tourism players say, will now nosedive, second year in a row.
Last year the Spring arrivals remained lower at a little over 21,000 visitors in the aftermath of Pulwama attack in which 40 CRPF soldiers were killed and subsequent Indo-Pak tensions which resulted in an aerial escalation between the countries.
To put in perspective, over a lakh visitors arrived in Kashmir in 2016 and the numbers surged in April to nearly a lakh and a half. Since then due to political turmoil, the numbers have been decreasing annually. This season, the stakeholders in the tourism industry are expecting the numbers to dip to an all-time low.
Also read: Kashmir: Tourist Arrivals Plunge to a Decade-low, Lowest Winter Arrivals Crush All Hopes
Tourism-affiliated businessmen in the region are already grappling with major economic losses due to the post August clampdown. According to the region's largest trade body Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI), the tourism industry alone suffered a loss of over Rs 100 crore with more than 74,000 people losing their jobs and livelihood post-August last year.
Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Alliance's (JKTA) Manzoor Pakhtoon said the booking queries were already lower this year for spring season. "The time for bookings for spring is already over and there are queries for summer as well. We are staring at our ruin," Pakhtoon said.
Gulzar Ahmad, who owns a houseboat in Srinagar's Dal Lake, said the situation is too grim for people like him. "The houseboat requires a lot of resources for maintenance and with consecutive losses we are impoverished. Besides, we cannot lay off people who are employed for houseboat maintenance for more than 30 years... also, not too many know how to do it," Gulzar said.
In the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir so far, over 2,600 people have been kept under observation for COVID-19, and placed under home quarantine. According to the official data, as many as 113 samples have been collected for testing. So far, three persons have tested positive while the results of five more persons are awaited.
Also read: Lockdown is an Important Step to Stop Spread of Coronavirus: Guleria