A profitable winter in Kashmir

Shikaras lined up in Dal Lake, Srinagar.

Shikaras lined up in Dal Lake, Srinagar. | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

It is spring in Srinagar. At 5 p.m., dark clouds rush in from the Zabarwan hills in the east over the Dal Lake. The sun begins to descend behind the Pir Panjal mountain range in the west. Shades of crimson paint the sky. For first-time visitors to the Kashmir Valley, this is a selfie moment that needs to be captured on their phones. For the 1,200 shikaras (wooden boats), many of which are festooned with lights, flowers and balloons, the day has just begun. This is the time when tourists arrive in droves and converge around the famous lake.

Kashmir has been through a difficult time over the last few years. First, stringent security measures were imposed and communication channels snapped for many months after the Central government decided to end Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status on August 5, 2019. Then came the pandemic, and the flow of tourists came to a grinding halt during the months of the nationwide lockdown (it increased substantially thereafter). But today, Kashmir has already played host to a record 3.5 lakh tourists in the first three months of the year, which are otherwise considered a lean period. The Deputy Director of Tourism, Ahsanul Haq Chisti, is hopeful that the numbers will keep rising. He looks forward to breaking a decade-old record when 13 lakh tourists visited Kashmir in a year. “The projections are on the higher side,” Chisti said.

The tide is turning

The queue is getting longer at Ghat No. 9 on Boulevard Road. Couples on their honeymoon, large families, and a group of friends line up to take shikaras at a wooden jetty to reach their pre-booked houseboats. These floating homes, which stay moored in rows along the lake, have lured tourists for decades now. At least 1,200 smaller boats mill around, pushing and shoving to make way towards the decked-up houseboats.

Many tourists are amused as shikarawallas in Kashmiri attire sing Pardesiyon Se Na Ankhiyan Milana, from the 1965 Shashi Kapoor-starrer Jab Jab Phool Khile, to recall the romance of the big screen with Kashmir. Kashmir became a place of curiosity in the 1960s and ’70s when songs from movies like Junglee and Kashmir Ki Kalishowed spectacular images from the State, which went on to become iconic. From those days, spending a honeymoon in Kashmir became an aspiration for many middle-class families across the country.

Many shikarawallas have installed power motors to meet the rush this year. “If we don’t press motor boats into service, it will take the entire night to ferry tourists,” said Nazir Gilkar, a shikarawalla. Gilkar plans to get his two daughters married in one go as business looks up. “Kashmir is an uncertain place. I have set a target for myself. If I achieve the target, I will get them married,” Gilkar said smiling.

A couple enjoys the fresh snowfall in Srinagar.

A couple enjoys the fresh snowfall in Srinagar. | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

As motorboats take over, the romance of pushing oars has become a fast-dying tradition. At the back line of the lake, a houseboat built in 1977, Shahnama, named after a long epic poem by the Persian poet Firdowsi, waits for guests. It has four deluxe rooms, intricately carved cornices and boundary planks. The Siyahs, who own the boat, have been witness to the best and worst of times in Kashmir. Oldest in the houseboat trade, the Siyahs have named most of their houseboats Alif Laila, Zam Zam, and Meena Bazaar.

Paintings of Persian women offering wine and the picture of ‘The Last Supper’ woven on a Kashmiri carpet adorn the walls of the houseboat. The Siyahs have an elite clientele. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had tea on the terrace of the houseboat in the late 1970s. “She spent the whole day by herself on the terrace of the houseboat. She would order cups of tea while sitting under the canopy. We had no clue what she was busy with,” Ghulam Ahmad Siyah, in his late 70s, recalled. The patriarch has served tourists from across the globe.

The guest book from the 1970s is testimony to the heyday of tourism in Kashmir. Foreign tourists penned their praise for Kashmir and the Siyahs for their hospitality on page after page. All of a sudden, the entries stop in 1989. It was in late 1989 that militancy broke out in Kashmir and changed the course of the Valley’s future.

But the tide seems to be turning in favour of the tourism industry. It is for the first time in the history of the houseboats that their rooms were lit up during all the months of this winter season. “Traditionally, houseboats are closed in Kashmir when winter sets in around November. They are re-opened for cleaning and maintenance in February or March. But this winter, around 65% of the houseboats could not close due to the steady rush of tourists,” Ibrahim Siyah, 53, owner of the Shahnama, said. “Even the tariffs stand revised. From ₹3,000, they have increased to ₹7,500. Never in my life have I seen houseboats catering to tourists in peak winter.”

A tourist couple poses for a photograph in Badamwari in downtown Srinagar.

A tourist couple poses for a photograph in Badamwari in downtown Srinagar. | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

Kashmir’s tourism chapter is witnessing many firsts this year. “It’s better than the pre-1989 period,” veteran trekker and trekking consultant Rauf Tramboo, who owns the Highland Journeys company, said. As a school-goer, Tramboo went to all the locations where superstar Rajesh Khanna shot for films, in the 1970s. “Khanna was so impressed by my perseverance that he once offered me a special spot to watch the shooting of the movie Roti in Pahalgam,” Tramboo said.

Records and concerns

Is the heyday of Kashmir tourism back? Around 3,000 people take Asia’s highest rope way, Gondola, located at a 13,000-feet altitude in north Kashmir’s Gulmarg, daily, official figures suggest. More than three lakh visitors have clicked memorable pictures at the seasonal Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden, the highest number since the garden was opened in 2007 by then Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. “All the records were broken this year. During the first two weeks after the tulip garden was thrown open in March, 2.88 lakh people sauntered in despite the bright sun,” said the garden in-charge, Sofi Inam-ur-Rehman.

Tourists enjoy a Gondola ride in Gulmarg, North Kashmir, in December 2021.

Tourists enjoy a Gondola ride in Gulmarg, North Kashmir, in December 2021. | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

From around 30 flights a day two years ago, the Srinagar airport is buzzing till late evening these days. “Another record was set on April 13 when more than 16,000 passengers on 100 flights landed at the airport,” the Airport Director, Kuldeep Singh Rishi, said. This has set the stage for a historic tourism season ahead, that too in the backdrop of the Central government’s decision to end Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status.

In a strange way, the pandemic has come as a blessing for Kashmir’s tourism. “All the high-end and upper middle-class domestic tourists who would travel to Europe were stranded due to the travel ban. They started exploring Kashmir and have fallen in love with the place, which offers cheaper ski destinations than Europe,” Tramboo said.

The unprecedented rush reminds Tramboo of 1988. A record 89,000 foreign tourists had visited Kashmir that year between May and September. “I think there were more than one lakh foreign tourists. We fell short of guides. We hired guides from Nepal, Manali and Darjeeling. Thereafter, everything came to a standstill due to the turmoil in 1989. We never saw such a season again. This year offers a promise to return to the old days,” he said.

Working in Nepal for 15 years with Garry Weare, an international name in trekking, Tramboo’s dream project to upscale trekking in Kashmir mountain ranges had almost come to an end in 2019. “Just before Article 370 was diluted, I had invested around ₹40 lakh for trekking equipment. Weare and I had explored new routes around Srinagar for trekkers. The clampdown that followed August 5, 2019, shattered all our plans,” Tramboo said. But he is now optimistic about his project.

But security remains an issue for the tourism industry. About 60 hotels are occupied by security forces. According to official figures, Kashmir Valley has 40,753 hotel rooms in around 1,500 hotels, which also include the rooms under occupation of the security forces. There is a demand to change the nomenclature of these structures from hotels to complexes to create proper data on rooms available in the Valley. The iconic Kahkashan Hotel in the old city, believed to have 200 rooms, still caters to Central Reserve Police Force personnel. Advisories issued by western countries, including the U.S. and the European Union, asking tourists to confine their visits to Srinagar after August 5, 2019 and designating the rest of the Valley as “unsafe”, are still in place. “Unless advisories change, we won’t see foreign tourists arriving in the Valley. They prefer trekking rather than sightseeing. In fact, we have identified newer routes and places for trekking, which connect Srinagar with Tral and Pahalgam in south Kashmir,” Tramboo said.

Homes to home stays

Hotels have been booked till May, especially in Gulmarg and Pahalgam which stay cool even during peak summer, hoteliers said. Room tariffs are skyrocketing in the face of increasing demand and the willingness of domestic tourists to spend. High-end hotel rooms cost between ₹22,000 and ₹45,000 a night this year, the highest ever in the history of the catering industry of Kashmir. Even smaller hotels are charging 200% more than what they normally offer in the lean period. With rooms running to full occupancy for the months of April and May, a new trend is shaping up. Little-known pockets of the old city, otherwise known for street protests and clashes, have opened up to tourists.

Blooming mustard fields during the spring season on the outskirts of Srinagar.

Blooming mustard fields during the spring season on the outskirts of Srinagar. | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

Khanyar, which witnessed the worst clashes and deaths of protesters in the 1990s, is one such example. Roadside houses have been converted to tourist guest houses in this area. Saima Dar is a resident of Khanyar. Her husband died in cross-firing in 1994. She blames the security forces for opening indiscriminate fire in response to a grenade attack of militants on a picket. Dar thinks tourism can heal deep wounds. “Kashmir has seen enough turmoil. We never know when the conflict will end. Thirty years of experience tells us that we need to live in spite of the conflict. My family was devastated when I lost my husband. We have seen the most difficult times. I am sure catering to tourists will help us raise money for a safe future,” Dar said.

All the drapes in her guest house have hand-made crewel embroidery. European tea cosies cover the traditional bone China tea sets for guests. “We offer kahwa (a traditional Kashmiri green tea prepared with spices like saffron, green cardamom and cinnamon) to tourists at our place,” she said.

Srinagar was once known as the capital of militants because of the number of youths joining the ranks, but areas in Srinagar such as Khanyar, Nowpora, Bishambar Nagar and Baba Dembhare are fast turning into tourist hotspots today. Fancy restaurants have extended evening life in these areas, which used to close by sundown because of the security situation.

Just a few metres away from Dar’s guest house is the Martyrs’ Graveyard where 33 civilians, who died in firing by security forces, lay buried. “I am sure the tourists will see our scars too once they move around in the city,” Dar said.

The Sayeed effect

Immediately after the Congress government deposed and jailed the then Prime Minister of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah in 1953, tourism picked up in 1954 under Congress-patronised Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad’s rule. Till date, no historian has solved the puzzle of how jailing a popular leader did not impact tourism in 1954 — hotel gardens were full of people.

There is consensus among Kashmir’s tourism players that it was Mufti Mohammad Sayeed who brought the tourism sector back on track after he took over after as Chief Minister following the 2002 elections. He had served as Union Tourism and Civil Aviation Minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1986 and used his experience to develop the tourism sector in Kashmir.

Mufti Mohammad Sayeed at Palam airport in New Delhi in 2002.

Mufti Mohammad Sayeed at Palam airport in New Delhi in 2002. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“The idea of converting homes into guest houses was floated by Mufti Sahib. He established tourism development authorities. He personally oversaw projects and demand status reports. We suddenly saw locals coming forward with proposals to convert their traditional homes into tourist guest houses; it was unheard of in Kashmir earlier,” said Naeem Akhtar, once a close aide of Sayeed, who also served as Tourism Secretary and Tourism Minister in Jammu and Kashmir. The Valley has registered 600 houses as guest houses so far. “This year over 50 house owners came forward to ask that their houses be categorised as guest houses,” an official said.

The Jammu and Kashmir government offers a subsidy of up to 50% of the total cost of the project to house owners for converting their private homes into home stays, subject to a ceiling of ₹5 lakh in each case. Over 100 guest houses are already operational in Srinagar, and scores of locals have started applying this year as the tourist rush is visible on the streets. Even the land ceiling was relaxed by the Sayeed government to encourage more and more people “to turn to tourism than guns in Kashmir”.

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Sayeed relaxed norms to such an extent that hotels and guest houses sprung up everywhere in Raj Bagh and Gogji Bagh in uptown Srinagar. He also laid the foundation for allowing tourists to visit the no-go area of downtown Srinagar. The experiment was successful to some extent. But Akhtar warns that using tourism as an indicator of normalcy would be the biggest folly New Delhi would commit. “It is a hard-earned space where the people of Kashmir have invested jointly. The credit goes to political parties across the spectrum for making Kashmir tourism a conflict-neutral sector. Sayeed invested a lot of energy and had a lot of conversations with his opponents to ensure that tourism and education remained conflict-neutral sectors,” Akhtar said.

In fact, till 2019, the Jammu and Kashmir government had a policy of disallowing the sharing of any information on the number of tourists visiting Kashmir as it was concerned that the numbers would be construed as a return to normalcy in Kashmir. The decision to keep numbers shielded from the public eye instilled confidence among stakeholders, and their trade did not come under any threat. At the same time, militants too kept their distance from the tourism sector. Any attack on tourists invited condemnation from even Hurriyat leaders like Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. The policy seems to be paying dividends two decades after it was framed.

Back at the Shahnama houseboat, a shiny new visitor’s book is on the table to record history being created. “Domestic tourists avoid writing in visitors’ books. I wish they did for the record. We also hope foreign tourists will return to pen their experiences in the book,” Iliyas Malik, the caretaker of the houseboat, said. Hope floats in Kashmir.

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Printable version | Jul 1, 2022 12:07:52 pm |