Had it been any other year, tour operators in Kashmir would have rejoiced over the amount of snow the Valley received in the initial phase of the winter. It would have brought in good business for them, mitigating the losses that they suffered after the government issued marching orders to tourists and non-locals and snapped all communication lines ahead of August 5, 2019 decision to abrogate Article 370 and bifurcate the state into two Union territories.
Even as the travel ban was revoked after one month, on October 10, tourist footfalls have failed to pick up in the picturesque Valley, with political instability and the absence of internet services keeping tourists at bay.
Various people associated with the tourism sector told NewsClick that footfalls have been negligible in the Valley after the travel ban was revoked, mainly because of “lack of internet services” and an “ambiguous political scenario.”
Mir Anwar, a tour operator, told NewsClick that even if there seems to be some semblance of normalcy in the Valley, the government not restoring internet services is hitting business.
“Internet is oxygen to tourism. Who will visit a place where internet is suspended? The move itself sends a negative signal. No matter what you claim, tourist will not come until internet is resumed,” he said.
In fact, Anwar termed the absence of internet as the biggest setback to the industry. “We have lost all the bookings. Without internet we are unable to communicate with our clients,” he said. Above all, he said, peace was the perquisite for peace, and “the situation is not hidden from anyone.”
“Although public transport is back on the roads and shops have also opened. The government’s reluctance to restore internet services and other things are discouraging tourists to visit the Valley.” he said, asking: “How will tourists come when government itself is uncertain about the situation on the ground?”
The Valley received the lowest number of tourists in the past six years, from August to November 2019. If government figures are to be believed, only 36,105 tourists visited the Valley in these four months compared with 2,67,955 persons who travelled to Kashmir in the same period last year.
Some tour operators said only those tourists are visiting the Valley who could not refund or cancel their visit. “They pre-booked their tours five-six months earlier. They have no option of refund. Otherwise, the reality is that tourists are staying away due to political uncertainty,” said a tour operator.
There are around 20,000 tourist units that are recognised by the state tourism department and, like Anwar, they are also passing through a difficult phase without internet connectivity. These include tour operators, houseboats (1,200 of them), transporters among others.
“Normally, we used to send a detailed quotation to tourists. We cannot do that on phone. After that, the customers used to send us feedback and, at times, wanted certain changes. This whole process seems practically difficult in the prevailing situation. Everybody cannot fly to Delhi and operate from there,” Anwar said, adding that they had requested the government to restore their internet connection, but without any success.
The worst sufferers are shawl-makers and artisans who sell their merchandise on the banks of Dal Lake.
“Since the past five months, our situation has worsened. Tourists were forced to flee the Valley. We are without work. We have taken bank loans for our business and are getting calls from the banks for the repayment of loans,” Gulzar Ahmad Razaqi, President, Jeeli Dal Tourist Traders Association, told NewsClick.
As the sales drop, the artisans who have taken bank loans are unable to pay their interests. “Several hawkers are working with us. For last five months, we have not done any business. We are unable to repay the interest to banks. We are somehow managing two meals. We raised the issue with the chairman of the bank and the Central government, but nothing has happened so far,” Mohmmad Yousuf, an artisan with the Handicraft Department, told NewsClick. He too considers internet blockade as the biggest hurdle to bringing tourists back in the Valley.
However, a Tourism Department official told NewsClick that tourism was picking up slowly and they were making efforts for its revival.
“There are not many tourists today, but it will pick up in the coming day,” he said. Asked about the lack of internet services for tour operators, he said, “We have made arrangements for them in the Tourist Reception Centre. They can come and avail it.”
The usual buzz in missing in Gulmarg, the ski-resort that used to receive a good number of tourists during Christmas and New Year. The hill-station is covered with a blanket of snow but there are only a few visitors to behold this beautiful sight as the ski-resort is also witnessing a dismal footfall.
The situation in other places is worse. Mushtaq Ahmad, a hotelier in Pahalgam, told NewsClick that the tourist footfall was dismal in the scenic hill station as only a handful of visitors had come for sightseeing this year. “Majority of the hotels are shut here and nearly 90% staff has been laid off. There is no tourism here,” he added.
Even as tourists are yet to return to the Kashmir valley in good numbers, the authorities are planning to hold fresh roadshows and promotional events in different cities to bring back visitors. In addition, the tourist department has extended invitations to Bollywood’s production houses to visit Gulmarg.
However, these moves have not gone down well with tour operators in Valley who believe that the administration should first try to restore things on the ground rather than waste money and effort in the name of promotion.
“Tourists are not dumb, you cannot fool them. If they think tourists will pour in even after knowing that the internet is down, they are living in a fool’s paradise,” Mohammad, Younis, another hotelier, said.
The worst part, Younis said, was that the internet shutdown during this time would affect business next year as well.
“It is a highly competitive industry, and people usually book their tours six-seven months in advance. If internet is not restored anytime soon, it will affect our future business as well,” he added.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Kashmir.