Highway restrictions taking toll on tourism, say stakeholders

Various tourism players on Sunday said that restrictions on traffic movement on the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway imposed by the authorities in view of the ongoing Amarnath Yatra are taking a toll on Kashmir tourism.

These tourism players were speaking at an interactive session organised by the Tourism Department with the Commissioner Secretary Tourism Rigzin Samphel at the Royal Springs Golf Course.

Delegations of tour operators, hoteliers, houseboat owners apprised the secretary about problems being faced by tourism sector due to the traffic restrictions on the national highway and at Pahalgam and Sonamarg resorts. The tourism players also highlighted the need for aggressive tourism promotion especially on social media.

Ashfaq Siddiq Dug, president, Travel Agents Association of Kashmir who was a part of the delegation that met the secretary said tourism business to Valley has taken a major hit due to the national highway restrictions and skyrocketing of airfares. Dug said tourists at the famous health resorts are being “whisked away in a hurry” without giving them a chance to complete their tour itinerary.

“Tour operators are suffering as leisure tourists are dropping their plans for sightseeing or staying in the Valley now-a-days due to highway curbs. There is a lot of trust deficit for which we have been wanting to hold an interactive session with the Governor for last one year,” Dug said.

Manzoor Wangnoo, chairman, Nigeen Tourist Traders Association said instead of imposing restrictions, government should utilise Amarnath Yatra as an opportunity to promote Kashmir tourism. Wangoo said word of mouth publicity by the Amarnath pilgrims can help boost tourism in the valley.

“On one hand we are making efforts to encourage tourism by taking part in travel marts and road shows but all our efforts have gone in vain. As a result of such strict measures tourists are suffering as we seem to be in a cage,” Wangnoo said. “Often during Amarnath Yatra there is a drop in number of leisure tourists but the Valley this time has witnessed a major drop in arrivals due to the highway curbs,” Shah added.

Occupancy rates in hotels have also dwindled as tourists who had plans of staying in Pahalgam and Sonamarg are not able to do so, said Wahid Malik, president, Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Owners Federation. Malik said restrictions on traffic movement on the highway is putting leisure tourists to a great inconvenience.

“For more than five years this industry has been suffering and now this enforcement is proving to be a dampener for all tourism stakeholders including hotel owners. We were hoping that occupancy rates would increase during Yatra but that has not happened,” Malik said.

Manzoor Pakhtoon, president Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Alliance said Tourism Department must deploy tourist police at check points to the valley and health-resorts to “differentiate between Amarnath pilgrims and leisure tourists” so that movement of the latter is unrestricted.

The tourism players also raised the issue of absence of public toilets enroute national highway to which the secretary tourism said the department is conducting a massive drive to install bio-toilets both on Jammu- Srinagar National Highway and the Mughal Road. Samphel also assured the stakeholders that traffic management on Jammu-Srinagar national highway during Amarnath Yatra is being taken up with highest possible authorities.

“We acknowledge that you are quite hospitable towards the Yatra. The department has taken up the issue of traffic management with higher authorities and it is being streamlined,” said Samphel.  Commenting on tourism promotion, Samphel said J&K Tourism was highest spender on print media advertisements across the country. “A promotional campaign run by Sri Lanka Tourism Board after the Colombo incident ( blast) is something we have taken some lessons from. We have started a campaign ‘When are you visiting us?’ which has been a success and will ensure that tourist promotion and tourist infrastructure are a priority,” Samphel said.