Since Parliament unilaterally withdrew the special status and reorganised Jammu and Kashmir state into two federally governed union territories on August 5, the tourism sector has come to a grinding halt. The hotels and restaurants at all the tourist destinations are out of business and locked. In a region where nearly one third of the population is associated with the tourism industry, Kashmir is seeing the footfalls of the tourists disappearing and people associated with the industry have no hopes of revival.
Ghulam Nabi, 53, a shikara [a type of wooden boat] owner looks downcast. He has not earned anything in the last 15 days, which has made it difficult for him to make ends meet. He has been running his shikara in the famous Dal Lake for the last 30 years and has never before faced such a situation. “I have never faced bad times. I used to earn Rs. 500-600 per day, but have not earned a single rupee in the last two weeks. I have never seen such situation here,” he said, adding that the state has witnessed worse crises before, but the government has never issued an advisory to leave the Valley.
The lake where Nabi operates from is missing the usual buzz and the famous boulevard road circling the lake is silent and deserted. The shikaras, which used to ferry tourists, have been either converted into fishing boats or are moored at different places of the lake. The hotels and restaurants located near the lake are padlocked, and their staff members can be seen passing time by playing cricket or cards.
“We have been playing cricket in the hotel premises for the last 20 days. We have no other work to do here and it’s the only way to spend our time. The situation has gone from bad to worse for us. Even if normalcy resumes, the tourists are unlikely to visit in near future,” Laxman, a chef at a local restaurant told NewsClick. He has been working here for the last 15 years and says he has never felt so vulnerable, “I left my home country Nepal to earn a better living here and had been doing so freely. But things have never been so bad. I fear that the move might change the attitude of the locals towards us,” he said.
On August 2, the principal secretary (Home) issued a security advisory saying pilgrims and tourists “may curtail their stay” and “return as soon as possible”. The advisory read: “In the interest of safety and security of the tourists and Amarnath Yatris, it is advised that they may curtail their stay in the valley immediately and take necessary measures as soon as possible.”
After three days, on August 5, Union Home Minister Amit Shah announced the abrogation of Article 370 and bifurcation of the state. The tourists were asked to leave the Valley to avoid any untoward incident. The decision came at the peak of the tourists’ season and when tourist footfall had just picked up. The number of travellers had slumped after the Pulwama attack earlier this year, in which more than 40 CRPF soldiers were killed in South Kashmir. The attack escalated the tensions between India and Pakistan and brought them on the brink of a war.
One of the hotel owners in Srinagar told NewsClick that they have been dealing with low number of tourists since past one year and the situation had slightly improved this season. “It had got better with the annual Amarnath Yatra. More tourists had started to come here, but the decision put final nail in the coffin of tourism sector in Kashmir. We are facing the worst ever crisis here,” he said, adding that it would need special efforts by the government to reverse this situation.
Not only is Dal Lake deserted, but other tourists’ attractions like Pahalgam and Gulmarg too face all-time low hotel occupancy, forcing many hoteliers to shut the hotels.
The hotel owners said that the tourist arrival went down drastically because of the government advisory and the developments that followed. “The ousting of the Amarnath pilgrims rendered Pahalgam deserted. At this time of the year, this place used to receive a huge number of tourists, but the decision of the government has killed the whole season,” said Bashir Ahmad, a resident who also owns a shop at Pahalgam. He added that he is worried about the pristine environs of the place as fewer regulations would mean more vandalism of this place.
More than a hundred kilometres away, Kashmir’s famous tourist destination Gulmarg also presents a grim picture. A tourist guide, wishing anonymity, told NewsClick that there is a graveyard silence in Gulmarg, as tourists have left the place. “Gulmarg used to be least affected by the situation in the rest of the Valley, but things are different this time around. There is no one here. The place has never been so silent and deserted before. I can switch to another job, but I am worried about the future of this place,” he said.
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