Religious tourism gets a push in Jammu and Kashmir

The Union Territory administration is offering special packages for the ongoing Navratri festival to extend the stay of Hindu pilgrims

October 02, 2022 02:02 am | Updated 09:59 am IST - New Delhi

Vaishno Devi Bhawan illuminated on the first day of ‘Navratri’ festival at Katra in Reasi district.

Vaishno Devi Bhawan illuminated on the first day of ‘Navratri’ festival at Katra in Reasi district. | Photo Credit: PTI

About 43% of tourists to the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir are pilgrims to two Hindu shrines — Vaishno Devi in Jammu and Amarnath in Kashmir. Their trips are usually short — an average pilgrim spends three-four days, arriving mostly by flight in Srinagar or Jammu, and then travelling by road to the base camps for Amarnath or at Katra, respectively. Now, in the ongoing period of Navratri, during which there’s a significant surge in pilgrims to Vaishno Devi, the administration is trying to encourage visitors to stay longer and see more within J&K.

The new attractions include ‘Mata Ki Chauki’ (singing of devotional songs in praise of the mother goddess), daily Ramlila shows, prabhat pheris (in Katra, morning religious processions featuring artistes from different States), ‘Mata Ki Kahani’ (renditions of the story of the mother goddess), decorated ‘Shiv-Parvati’ tableaux with folk dances from different States, laser shows, garbha dancing nights, devotional song competitions, and special tourist packages to sites across the Jammu and Kashmir divisions. The J&K Tourism Department has also lined up an all-India devotional song competition, cultural programmes, and multimedia exhibitions.

Free horse rides and battery car services are provided for people who are unable walk all the way up to the Vaishno Devi cave shrine. RFID tags ensure pilgrims’ safety. Priority darshans are arranged for the physically challenged.

The Amarnath Yatra has also seen arrangements on a grand scale. The number of tents en route to the shrine were increased from 29,000 in 2018 to 70,000 this year. Six base hospitals have also been established for the first time, and COVID hospitals with ICUs were set up at Pahalgam, Baltal and Sonamarg.

Patnitop, Sanasar and Bhaderwah in the Jammu division could become the go-to places that feed off the Vaishno Devi circuit. Pilgrims who complete their Amarnath Yatra can consider whistle-stop tours of Srinagar, Gulmarg and Pahalgam in Kashmir.

“We have tied up with tour operators and other stakeholders to offer special short packages,” Amarjeet Singh, Special Secretary, Tourism, J&K told The Hindu. “As we have good air connectivity between Jammu and Srinagar, a number of flights are operating on a daily basis.”

“We had a target of providing 70,000 beds for tourists. As a part of this plan, we are offering more and more homestays as they not only help people mingle with the local populace but also help reduce the carbon footprint,” Mr. Singh said.

“A majority of pilgrims who undertake pilgrimages to Amarnath and Vaishno Devi are 30 years or older in age. Most of the pilgrims come from Delhi, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh,” Anwar Shirpurwala, secretary general, Confederation of Hospitality, Technology and Tourism Industry, said.

A. Krishna Mohan, managing director of Southern Travels, a tour operator, said around 30% of the pilgrims are from other parts of the country, including south India.

Sources in the J&K Tourism Department said the highest-ever tourist footfall to date was 1.6 crore, and the administration expects that by the end of the year, the number will cross 2 crore. Around 3.65 lakh pilgrims visited the Amarnath shrine this year and till September 27, Vaishno Devi has had 65 lakh visitors.

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