Kashmir's tourism industry hoping to turn the corner despite COVID dampener

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Hit hard by the twin-lockdowns since August last year, the tourism sector in Kashmir is cautiously optimistic about getting back on its feet in the coming months.

The Valley did not see much tourist activity since August last year due to the lockdown imposed by authorities, first after the Centre revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and then due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to officials of the tourism department, around 43,000 tourists arrived in the period between August and December last year. The figure was just 19,000 till September this year, with most of the arrivals before March.

However, there are signs of the tide gradually turning after the government opened the Union Territory for tourism in July, according to industry players.

Several tourists visited Gulmarg, Sonamarg and Pahalgam the three main destinations in the Valley that are a favourite among tourists and bookings and inquiries by visitors, especially for the winter months, have witnessed a slow but steady increase over the last few weeks, they said.

Farooq Ahmad Kuthoo, president of Travels Agents Association of Kashmir (TAAK), is among those optimistic about the prospects.

Some movement has started as positive news has gone out and the Tourism Department has started different activities. So, the people’s interest in travelling to Kashmir is increasing and we are hopeful that we will at least have some traffic for the winter season if not cent percent revival, he told PTI.

Kuthoo said bookings and inquiries are increasing.

Kashmir is a preferred destination and the situation is also better. The recent report by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) also says there is zero crime against the tourists in Kashmir which has had a good impact.

“People know Kashmiris take good care of tourists, and the stakeholders are offering very good rates. So, we are very optimistic, he said.

The TAAK president said the stakeholders are doing their bit to attract the tourists, who can take advantage of the “best rates” now on offer.

Everybody is supporting right from a hotelier to a houseboat owner. We are working to break-even.

“At this time, we do not want to earn profits, so we are offering the best rates compared to other tourist destinations.

“We want to send a message across that everything is fine here so that tourists come here, he said.

Some others said that the comparatively better COVID situation and the restrictions on travelling abroad would attract more holidaymakers to Kashmir, though the high airfare and the mandatory coronavirus test on arrival could be a deterrent and tourists should be allowed entry if they have a recent negative test report.

The union territory had 7,565 active COVID-19 cases till Sunday.

Asif Burza, a hotelier who has properties in Srinagar, Pahalgam and Gulmarg with some having a tie-up with ITC Hotels, feels because of the current COVID situation, Kashmir is among the limited number of places where the tourists would prefer to travel.

We expect people will not be going abroad this year and will have limited places to visit with Kashmir being one of them. So, we are gearing up for that and hope it will pick up provided there is no major spike in the number of COVID-19 cases, Burza said.

He said more tourists have started coming over the last few weeks.

Another travel agent, Mir Anwar, who is the president of the Travel Agents Society of Kashmir (TASK), described the increase in the number of inquiries by tourists as a positive sign.

We have some inquiries for the future. Inquiries are picking up though not to a large extent, but people are showing interest. It is a positive sign, Anwar said.

He said multiple factors, including the security situation and the political uncertainty in Jammu and Kashmir along with the pandemic, were responsible for the decline in tourist arrivals.

There is political uncertainty. Every other day, there is a new reason. There are other multiple factors, including the security situation, he said, adding that tourism in the Valley was in shambles since August 5 last year.

Kuthoo also cautioned against the steep rise in airfare as has been witnessed over the last few years especially when it snows here.

“We see an increase in airfares in the winter months which could prove a dampener,” he said, appealing the authorities to keep a check on it.

Burza said that tourism stakeholders feel the mandatory COVID testing in the Valley was stopping tourists from coming.

It is proving as a slight deterrent, otherwise, if you see, in other places like Shiml and Mussoorie, tourism has picked up. There, they do not have to pass through such an ordeal, he said.

He said it has been suggested that the administration allow entry to visitors who had undergone a recent RT-PCR test and had a certificate of being negative for the coronavirus.

Director Tourism, Kashmir, Nisar Wani said they have submitted a proposal to the state disaster management authority to allow visitors who produce a recent certified negative COVID test report.

We have submitted such a proposal, but we have to understand that life of people is a priority. Also, tourists do not need to worry about it. God forbid if someone is positive, he will have free of cost treatment, Wani said.

He said the department was receiving positive feedback from different states and queries from prospective tourists and travel agents were showing an upward trend.

Asked about plans to rigorously take up promotional activities, the director said they were keeping a watch on the current COVID situation and would take up such activities soon.