SRINAGAR: For years, Farooq Ahmad Kotroo, 49, a houseboat owner of Best View Resorts, has been dealing with foreign tourists and travellers. Today, his only interaction with them happens online as he is struggling to continue his business amid COVID protocols and lockdowns.
Struggling to stay afloat, stakeholders, like Katroo, demand the complete resumption of houseboat operations and incentives from the government. They say that the houseboat sector came to a grinding halt two months ago after the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic started sweeping Jammu and Kashmir which forced the government to declare a lockdown.
Kotroo’s father, Haji Ali Muhammad Kotroo, inherited travel and trade business from his forefathers. He maintained his place—a privately owned island, with a group of houseboats, including, Miss England, King of Sea, Royal Orchard etc. in order to attract foreigners, mostly from Italy.
It was here, on one of Kotroos’ houseboats moored in the heart of the Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir, that the German Ambassador and many top-notch personalities have been coming to this place.
“Since 1950s, we have been giving services to the customers and we have always tried to maintain our quality,” Farooq Ahmad Kotroo, owner of the Best View Resort, says.
“I personally took over the property during the early 1990s and immediately connected with the foreign tourists. I started my tour agency and wooed tourists to Kashmir, during the peak seasons,” he says.
“Working with foreigners gave me an in-depth understanding about how to provide outstanding services to the tourists and travellers.”
“I also learned to speak three foreign languages during this period, including Italian, Spanish and English. I am currently learning Russian from my clients online,” he says, adding “When the then German Ambassador first came here, he called this place an Island of Solace.”
“This is a heritage property that I have inherited from my forefathers. It was established somewhere near 1954 and ever since we have been giving services to the tourists.”
Floating Art Corner
At Best View Resort, the visitors and travelers meet the treat of their eyes, a floating library, known as ‘Zabarwan Library Post’. After a floating post office located on the Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kotroo’s floating library also attracts travellers.
“This concept was started by an Italian tourist here. So we continued with it and we are getting a good response. The name of the floating library was suggested by one of my Kashmiri friends,” Kotroo says. He claims the moving library has over 500 collections of books of different genres in various languages including English, Spanish, Italian, and Russian. “We have many well-known people coming here just to enjoy the pleasant reading ambiance,” Kotroo says.
Kotroo says that the credit guarantee schemes announced by the Union Finance Minister were in no way beneficial to small tourism business owners like houseboats. “It is purely for Ministry of Tourism certified travel agents and licensed guides. That too is a very late and small help to the sinking ship.” He says, “Direct cash benefits to Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), looking at the average Goods and Services Tax remitted in the last three years, would be a great support to SMEs. It would help to pay off creditors, which would also help bring in more money circulation in the market.”
Kotroo says: “Houseboats remained closed for six months in 2020. After the sector reopened in October, the business never returned to pre-COVID-19 times due to poor tourist footfall. The second wave of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown have spelled disaster for the sector.” “Several of the owners have taken bank loans and the crisis has pushed a number of them into a debt trap. Apart from the owners, a large number of people allied with the sector have found the going tough.”
Prominent Bollywood sufi singer Richa Sharma was recently shooting along with her crew at the resort. “This has come as a surprise. I came to Kashmir after a gap of over 20 years and I straight away came to stay at this place. This place has given me so many memories and the people around,” Sharma told Greater Kashmir.
Another Bollywood music director and singer, Jaan Nissar Lone, says he always prefers this place because of its privacy, picturesque landscape, safety and splendid views.
“Whenever I have any work on camera. I prefer to shoot in Kashmir. This is just to bring some work to my locals here,” he says.
Another customer from Delhi, Ashutosh Shrivastava, says “I have lived in the best of the places across the world. I found peace in this lake. It has an amazing view, beautiful people around and also solace in nature.”
“The Dal Lake speaks to the visitors. All we need to do is to respect the dwelling population and its ecology,” he says, adding, “I have gone for the open water Shikara cruise and I really enjoyed it.”
‘Tale of Houseboats’
Some contend that there have been houseboats on the Dal and Nagin lakes since the 1800s. “We do know that in the late 19th century the boat-dwelling Hanji community of Srinagar started building floating homes or houseboats for English visitors and residents, who were not allowed to own land in Kashmir,” says another houseboat owner of Khyber group.
Pertinently some observers specifically trace the houseboat phenomenon to around the 1880s, to a shop-owner Pandit Naraindas who used to cater to foreign tourists. When his shop burnt down, it is said Naraindas moved his inventory to a small boat used by the boat-dwelling Hanjis and moored it. With some improvements, his became the first proper ‘houseboat’. Later, Naraindas sold his boat to a European, realised the potential in the idea, and started commissioning boats. He became locally famous as ‘Naav Narain’ and his first houseboat was named Kashmir Princess.
However, the famous British explorer, Sir Francis Younghusband, is known to have credited one MT Kennard with the idea of a ‘floating house’ between the years 1883 and 1888. It is said that for a long time locals used to call these 'the boats of Kennad Sahib’. Younghusband wrote that by 1906 there were hundreds of houseboats in Kashmir.
There is a respectable lineage to the semi-cute, semi-hilarious names of Srinagar’s houseboats; the early European boats were called HB Duke Wells, or New Buckingham Palace, in honour of the settler’s memories and sensibilities. How this led to our contemporary beauty bobbing on the Dal — New Soul Kiss —remains a matter of lively interest, though.
At the famed Dal Lake, hundreds of houseboats stationed along Srinagar’s lakes and river’s banks, are facing an existential threat. In an attempt to save the ecology of Kashmir’s water bodies such as Dal Lake, which is shrinking owing to pollution and climate change, authorities have begun strictly enforcing a decade-old ban on the reconstruction and repair of Kashmir’s houseboats that occupy – and pollute – the lakes and rivers. With owners banned from fixing them, the owners say that Kashmir’s lakes are slowly turning into graveyards for the sinking boats.