Bashir Ahmad Bhat agrees that running a hotel in Kashmir has always been tough. If it was about rough phases, Mr. Bhat had seen it all – civilian uprisings of 2008, 2010, and 2016; yet, he didn’t give up on his 15-year-old City Grace hotel in Nowpora, Srinagar. But, a few damages are irreversible. The one for him is of August 2019.
On 2 August’s evening, the 54-year-old hotelier was busy making sure that the guests are comfortable. A few moments later, the enforcement wing of Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) Tourism Department alongside J-K Police was inside his hotel, searching thoroughly for non-local tourists.
Later surfaced an advisory by the government – citing security threat – asking all non-local tourists, including Amarnath pilgrims, to leave Kashmir Valley and “return as soon as possible”. The police informed Mr. Bhat to follow the same advisory.
With a heavy heart, Mr. Bhat asked about a hundred tourists at his hotel to leave. “Initially [they] refused to leave,” he recalls. “[But] then they saw the advisory and left upset.”
“We survived earlier uprisings, but in 2019, when the government itself came up with tourist advisory,” says Mr. Bhat, “it triggered fear about Kashmir.”
Since then, Mr. Bhat’s hotel has been shut, and its fifteen employees gone jobless.
A document availed under RTI (Right to Information) revealed in January 2020 that the cumulative figure of tourists arrived in Kashmir from August to December 2019 (43,059) were 86 per cent less than during the same period in 2018 (3,16,424). The numbers further dip to 93 per cent when compared to the same period in 2019 (6,11,354).
Mr. Bhat claims that he has not hosted a single tourist since August 2019; it has caused him losses of nearly 10 lakh rupees per month. “The government advisory of throwing tourists out of the valley has dented Kashmir’s image across the globe,” says Mr. Bhat. “Our industry is dying and the government watches everything like a mute spectator.”
On 9 October 2019, though, the government withdrew the advisory. “The tourists desirous of undertaking a visit to the valley shall be provided all the necessary assistance and logistical support,” the order stated. However, hoteliers feel that a mere issuance of the order was not enough to convince the tourists across the globe to visit Kashmir.
Ghulam Mohammad Dag, who owns an A-category hotel, certified by Department of Tourism, on Boulevard road, Srinagar, seeks the government’s willingness to recover the tourism sector. “Unless the government comes up with a plan to motivate the tourists to visit Kashmir,” says Mr. Dag, “no tourist will come here,”
Following the advisory, all sixteen rooms at Mr. Dag’s hotel were vacated. He, too, claims that his hotel has mostly remained deserted for the past six months.
Mr. Dag, who is a former president of a regional commerce body, Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), started his career as a hotelier in 1965, but “has never seen such an unprecedented situation”. “The bad signal has gone outside and it is the duty of the government to repair the image of Kashmir,” he says.
A room’s rental charge at Mr. Dag’s hotel dropped by nearly eighty per cent as well. “Instead of 3,000 [rupees], I’m charging 500 to 1,000 [rupees].”
Union Minister for Tourism, Prahlad Singh Patel claimed in Parliament in November 2019 that the government-imposed clampdown didn’t have any significant impact on tourism. Later, the above mentioned document availed under RTI rebutted Mr. Patel’s claims.
To promote tourism, Director of Tourism, Kashmir, Nisar Ahmad Wani claims that the department is organising more roadshows and advertising. “In collaboration with trade, travel, and hoteliers this year, we have increased the roadshows from ten to twenty,” says Mr.Wani.
But there are more dimensions to it. Today, life is on the internet. And the social media engagement drives the youth, and adults alike, on renowned tourist destinations. The authorities’ decision to restore restricted 2G internet services in Kashmir, continuing social media ban, in January 2020 has failed to ripen results for tourism industry.
Secretary General of Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Owners’ Federation, Maqsood Misri, claims that restricted internet services is the reason behind reduced tourist footfall. Also, he adds that in absence of the internet, online booking for hotels have been affected to a major extent as well.
There are 2,355 hotels and guest houses registered with the Federation across Kashmir Valley – 1,040 out of them are in Srinagar.
“Nearly 60 per cent hotels have shut their operations in Kashmir,” claims Mr. Misri. “Due to lack of work, the owners have had to lay off employees.” He estimates that in tourist resorts, particularly in Pahalgam, Gulmarg, and Sonamarg, nearly 70 per cent hotels have called off the operations.
In Barbarshah, Vikram Madan, a Kashmiri pandit owner of Hotel Vikram, since 1980, holds the on-going social media ban a reason behind his empty hotel rooms.
“Any tourist would want to take a selfie by the majestic Dal Lake and upload it on social media to show his friends, family, and neighbours,” says Mr. Madan. “How can a tourist come here, when he is unable to use social media?”
However, for Sajad Rashid Shah, the 43-year-old owner of Hotel Pacific in Dalgate, “situation is limping back to normalcy”. He has started to get tourist enquires as well from the travel agents. He would reopen his hotel in March – “I hope tourists from around the world visit Kashmir.”
Irfan Amin Malik is Reporting Fellow at The Kashmir Walla.
The story appeared in our 2-8 March 2020 print edition.