Kashmir struggles to stay afloat

Travel | 30 Sep 2020

Athar Parvaiz

When kashmir went into a coronavirus lockdown in March, tourism in the Indian-administered territory had already been hobbled by eight months of tight security restrictions that New Delhi imposed after revoking the region's semi-autonomous status.

Now hoteliers, taxi drivers and others relying on tourism in the region say the pandemic has compounded the financial shock to the industry and they fear it could take years to recover.

The state of tourism in Kashmir is "a typical case of out of the frying pan into the fire," said Faiz Bakhshi, former secretary-general of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

"I don't see any resumption of tourism in Kashmir until there is zero incidence of Covid-19 cases here," said Bakhshi, who owns the Shangrila, a hotel in Srinagar, the region's main city.

In that time, Kashmir's economy across all sectors has lost 400 billion Indian rupees (HK$42 billion), said KCC&I vice president Majeed Mir.

Kashmir has been disputed by India and Pakistan since the end of British colonial rule in 1947. Both countries claim it in full but rule it in part.

Ejaz Ayoub, an independent Srinagar-based economic analyst, said Kashmir's tourism business needs two basic factors in order to thrive: peace and sustainable demand. The border squabbles jeopardized both. "And, since March, the pandemic has dealt a crushing blow to tourism," he said.

Zahoor Ahmad Trumboo said the occupancy of his Hotel Shah Abbas, overlooking the famed Dal Lake in Srinagar, has fallen by more than 90 percent since last August.

Before, all 80 rooms would be booked every summer and the hotel would do good business in the winters, too, as visitors came to enjoy the lake as well as the Himalayan region's scenic mountains and glaciers.

Now, the tourist industry "has no raw material," Trumboo said as he leaned back on a sofa at his hotel. "Tourists are the raw material for us. But, there have been no tourists in Kashmir for a year now."

Kashmir's tourism season officially started on July 15, noted the region's director for tourism Nissar Ahmad Wani. "But, we have received only 525 tourists in the months since - an average of nine per day."

In August and September last year, more than 14,600 tourists visited Kashmir - and that was a 90 percent drop from the same period in 2018, before Kashmir's semi-autonomous status was revoked, according to figures from the tourism department.

Along with horticulture and agriculture, tourism is an important industry for Kashmir, contributing about 7 percent of its gross domestic product.

While worries about security have kept many visitors away, others are put off by travel restrictions that have been put in place to slow the spread of the virus.

At a tourist taxi stand in the Srinagar locality of Tang Bagh, cars sit parked all day - most of the 200 taxi drivers who use the stand have left their cars there because there are no tourists to drive anywhere.

Two drivers, Nazir Ahmad and Fayaz Bhat, visit the office at the taxi stand a few days a week.

"We don't only come in search of work. We often chat for hours to share our problems and concerns to alleviate our mental stress," said Bhat, who has three children, including a physically impaired son.

Three years ago, he took out a loan to buy his taxi, which he was paying off in installments of 10,000 rupees each month before the pandemic struck.

He has not been able to make a single payment since March. "The last few months have been very tough," he said. "I had to take medicine for two months after I was diagnosed with depression."

Earlier this month, Jammu and Kashmir lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha announced an economic relief package of 13.5 billion rupees, but critics say this might be too little, too late.

Trumboo is convinced the only way Kashmir's tourism industry will restart is with a significant "financial injection." Right now, he said, "Kashmir's tourism is not only damaged; it is dead."

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