While Kashmir is witnessing a boom in domestic tourists’ arrival, the adverse travel advisories and Covid-19 related restrictions have heavily hit the foreigners’ footfall in the valley.
According to the official data accessed by The Kashmir Walla, merely 6,000 foreign tourists have visited the valley in the last three years after the abrogation of the region’s limited autonomy in August 2019.
To put it in perspective, 31,143 foreigners visited the valley in 2018.
Tourism in Kashmir has taken a downturn since the August 2019 clampdown, followed by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
In 2020, the figures reveal that 3897 foreign tourists arrived in Kashmir. In 2021, the number further declined to 1615, while this year around 500 foreigners have visited the place till February.
Tourism is among the key sectors of Jammu and Kashmir’s economy and accounts for nearly 8 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Though the tourism industry-associated players are breathing a sigh of relief following the rush of domestic tourists this season, the adverse travel advisories from the USA and other European countries have hit the foreign tourists’ arrival in Kashmir.
On 31 March last year, the United States of America in its travel advisory urged the citizens “not to travel to Jammu and Kashmir and within 10 km of the India-Pakistan border.” The US State Department has cautioned its citizens to exercise caution in India due to “crime and terrorism”.
The State Department’s travel advisory comes a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a Level 1 Travel Health Notice due to COVID-19, indicating a low level of COVID-19 in India. Similarly, the United Kingdom has also advised its citizens against traveling to Kashmir. According to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) the tourists should not visit the vicinity of the border with Pakistan, other than at Wagah [in Punjab].
The tourist destinations of Pahalgam, Gulmarg, Sonamarg, Srinagar city, and the Jammu-Srinagar national highway are within the areas where the FCDO advises against travel.
Sarmad Hafeez, Secretary of Tourism and Culture, however, blamed the Covid-19 restrictions for the less arrival of foreign tourists to the valley.
“I don’t think it is due to the adverse advisory that limited the footfall of the foreign tourists here [Kashmir],” he told The Kashmir Walla. “The entire world was under a lockdown due to Covid. So, how can we expect foreigners to visit the valley?”
Contrary to the US travel advisory, Hafeez said that there are many other countries in Southeast Asia and Europe that have allowed their citizens to visit Kashmir.
“Many Europeans visited Gulmarg for skiing during winter. We are in constant touch with the Tourism Ministry and are doing all to promote Kashmir as a tourist destination on the world map,” he said.
Talking with The Kashmir Walla, Mushtaq Chaya, Chairman of Hoteliers Club, said it is “unfortunate” that despite betterment in the situation and decline in Covid cases, the adverse travel advisory is still in place for Kashmir.
Chaya, who recently met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, said that if domestic tourists start arriving like this every year, “the absence of foreigners won’t make much difference in their business.”
Chaya said during their meeting with Modi, they raised several problems about the deteriorating economic condition. “The PM assured us that all possible help would be provided to bring economic stability in the region.”
Farooq Kathoo, President of the Travel Agents Association of Kashmir (TAAK), said that most foreigners are high-spending tourists, who generally prefer high-cost hotels and food.
Kathoo said in order to lift the travel advisories, the government should make efforts like sending the data on the crime against foreigners in Kashmir and in the rest of India to all foreign embassies.
“We are witnessing a good number of domestic tourists this season. I hope that foreigners will also choose Kashmir as their destination over other places in India,” he said.