Footfall of tourists from Gujarat to the Kashmir Valley has fallen significantly this year. Tourism players in Kashmir blame “negative campaign” by right wing groups on the social media, besides the unrest, for the 85% slump in the sector.
Despite the J&K Tourism department’s campaigns, travel marts and road shows in Rajkot, Ahmedabad, Surat and Vadodara in Gujarat earlier this year, big tour operators have “dropped Kashmir from the tourism itinerary” this year.
“Normally Gujarat tour operators will offer bulk booking of hotel rooms for summer. This year it has come down to a trickle,” Farooq Kuthoo, secretary-general of the Travel Agents Association of Kashmir, told The Hindu .
Mr. Kuthoo claimed that there was a negative campaign online against travelling to Kashmir. “Messages like ‘avoid travelling to a place where Indian flags are burnt’ were being circulated on WhatsApp group. Who would dare to come now?” asked Mr. Kuthoo.
Speaking to The Hindu from Ahmedabad over telephone, Rimmi Vaghela, student activist and frequent Kashmir traveller, confirmed the “negative campaign” online in Gujarat.
“There is a concerted effort to shoo away Gujaratis from travelling to Kashmir this year online. Besides the social media, the vernacular press in Gujarat plays up the incidents of violence like never before,” said Ms. Vaghela, who was in Srinagar in March.
Ghulam Rasool Sia, chairman, Houseboat Owners Association, said, “There is a design to crush the Kashmir economy. However, our effort will continue to make tourists feel safe in Kashmir and help them have the best memories. The government needs to identify the disruptive forces, which may be working at the behest of operators of other destinations.”
Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti holds the tourism portfolio. In 2002, her father Mufti Muhammad Sayeed had sought then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s intervention to battle the “negative campaign.”
At least 11 tour, travel and hospitality bodies in Srinagar have sought the Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s intervention to curb the negative portrayal of Kashmir on a few New Delhi-based channels.
Director (Tourism) Mehmood Shah admitted that the tourist flow from Gujarat is low this year. “We are not getting expected numbers from Gujarat, Maharashtra and New Delhi. I am not privy to any online campaign but yes, there is a negative perception about the destination.”
Invite to journalists
The Tourism department has decided to invite television channels from outside Kashmir. “We had invited a group of journalists during curfews here in the past. We are again inviting journalists to see the ground reality vis-a-vis tourism in Kashmir,” said Mr. Shah. “Kashmir remains a safe destination for tourists,” he added.
Tourism contributes 8% to the State’s Gross Domestic Product and it provides employment to hundreds of locals.
In April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had stressed that “people of J&K have to make a choice between terrorism and tourism.”
“We are battling a mindset. The mindset in mainland India has to change,” said Pilgrim and Leisure Tour Operators’ Forum head Nasir Shah.