Tourism in Kashmir, frozen to death

The world has woken up to a new dawn it never expected, and for which it was never prepared. All the leading intellectuals and scholars all over the world would worry and warn us about an environmental catastrophe, or a nuclear disaster, but what caught them off-guard was a microscopic virus. This microscopic virus brought the world to its knees and made a dent to its centuries old established economic, social, political and cultural order. The loss of economics and business poses an existential threat to millions of people all over the world, and our part is no exception.

The blissful and idyllic Valley of Kashmir, surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks receives over a million tourists, and pilgrims every year.  Apart from the from the tourists within the country, foreign tourists from various countries including visit Kashmir during summers, winters as well. Details available in the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department reveal that after the spread of the Pandemic the flow of tourists, as was seen from December 2019 to February, not only slowed down but completely froze. This steep decline in Kashmir’s tourist arrival has devastated the tourism sector. The stakeholders in the tourism industry believe that they are ruined; all players involved are traumatised. All hoteliers, transporters, shikarwalas, shopkeepers, ponywalas, tourist guides, and all agents related to tourism are economically shattered. They all had visualized the coming of summer as a revival of their business, compensating the last years’ loss.

The harsh winter was over, and here was sun nurturing lush greens, buds, blossoms, phenomenal flora and fauna and pristine natural beauty everywhere. But this dreadful incidence has tied us to misfortune. And we are deeply anguished for we have been facing all kinds of viruses and vulnerabilities.   In 2020, key players connected with this sector here had high hopes for a very sound tourism business this year. The Shikarwalas, taxi owner, hoteliers, houseboat owners, ponywalas, fine art artisans like shawl weavers, papermacihe artisans, and all others associated with tourism had stirred up themselves for a new season in tourism. But all expectations stand dashed to dround. All is soundless here.  Gulmarg, Pahalgam, Sonamarg, Kokarnag, Doodhpatheri, Dal Lake, Mansbal, Nigeen Lake; rivers, springs, gardens and parks are all quiet and the chirping of birds fills the entire space. All tourist infrastructure – hotels, restaurants, boats and bazaars witness no activity, no movement of people, and no business. Everything has fallen vacant.

The dilemma of tourism players is going to persist for a longer period of time as the WHO has declared that the pandemic may infect people for years, so we need to be ready for a longer war against the virus.  The Government, as guardian  of people, ought to frame a policy to help the tourism sector here, as it has taken measures for various other sectors. Tourism in Jammu and Kashmir was declared reopened from July 14 after a 10-month long and painful closure. The Govt ordered tourists to follow the guidelines issued by the State Executive Committee for regulating their entry into Jammu and Kashmir in view of the spread of the Pandemic Covid -19. As per the notification, any deviation from the order will attract penal action under the Disaster Management Act, 2005.  But a tepid response has been observed from the tourists, for evident reasons. The Jammu and Kashmir, particularly the valley, is among the worst hit places at present, which has above 13,000 confirmed coronavirus positive cases and 244 deaths till date ( this is at the time of writing this column).    The shutdown of the tourism sector over the months has resulted in loss of jobs as well as financial losses, as is evident from the inability of the borrowers of bank loans to repay, as revealed by a survey conducted by the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI).  Artisans and weavers are jobless, as are other players in the sector. The business losses are more than ₹14000 crores. The pandemic has  worsened the situation and no doubt precautions are needed to contain this disease, but government must come to the rescue of Kashmir economy as it is a matter of survival for business community. This community has brought their plight into the notice of Central as well as local Government already. The fraternity has urged the J&K government to come forward and help the tourism sector to come out of this financial misery. Everywhere there is panic, and in this situation traders are witnessing very low sales which are impacting recovery from losses they suffered due to uncertainty and earlier clampdown.  This shock could not have come at a worst time than this. Business community in Kashmir is facing plethora of problems, now this epidemic has further dimmed the chances of revival.

The Pandemic and the resulting frustration may have given majority of places and communities in the world a crude surprise, but to our land and its people, particularly Kashmir, it is yet another disaster; time to repose faith in the resilience of the people to overcome this difficult situation. The people of Kashmir can bear this loss, but what they cannot afford to lose at this moment is hope, the very faith that has carried them through turbulent times. This colossal loss in tourism sector would mean nothing if we as a community, with the support of Government, step forward and face this challenge upfront.

Tail Piece:  “If winter comes, can spring be far behind” , writes P. B. Shelley.