A worthwhile winter in Kashmir

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A profitable winter in Kashmir

2022-04-16 03:43:31

Kashmir’s tourism business is witnessing many firsts this yr regardless of safety considerations. Peerzada Ashiq experiences on how the pandemic helped revive the business and convey revenue to a individuals who in any other case dwell in uncertainty 

Kashmir’s tourism business is witnessing many firsts this yr regardless of safety considerations. Peerzada Ashiq experiences on how the pandemic helped revive the business and convey revenue to a individuals who in any other case dwell in uncertainty 

It is spring in Srinagar. At 5 p.m., darkish clouds rush in from the Zabarwan hills within the east over the Dal Lake. The solar begins to descend behind the Pir Panjal mountain vary within the west. Shades of crimson paint the sky. For first-time guests to the Kashmir Valley, it is a selfie second that must be captured on their telephones. For the 1,200 shikaras (picket boats), lots of that are festooned with lights, flowers and balloons, the day has simply begun. That is the time when vacationers arrive in droves and converge across the well-known lake.

Kashmir has been by means of a troublesome time over the previous few years. First, stringent safety measures have been imposed and communication channels snapped for a lot of months after the Central authorities determined to finish Jammu and Kashmir’s particular constitutional standing on August 5, 2019. Then got here the pandemic, and the circulate of vacationers got here to a grinding halt throughout the months of the nationwide lockdown (it elevated considerably thereafter). However at present, Kashmir has already performed host to a report 3.5 lakh vacationers within the first three months of the yr, that are in any other case thought-about a lean interval. The Deputy Director of Tourism, Ahsanul Haq Chisti, is hopeful that the numbers will preserve rising. He appears ahead to breaking a decade-old report when 13 lakh vacationers visited Kashmir in a yr. “The projections are on the upper facet,” Chisti mentioned.

The tide is popping

The queue is getting longer at Ghat No. 9 on Boulevard Street. {Couples} on their honeymoon, giant households, and a gaggle of mates line as much as take shikaras at a picket jetty to achieve their pre-booked houseboats. These floating houses, which keep moored in rows alongside the lake, have lured vacationers for many years now. No less than 1,200 smaller boats mill round, pushing and shoving to make manner in direction of the decked-up houseboats.

Many vacationers are amused as shikarawallas in Kashmiri apparel sing Pardesiyon Se Na Ankhiyan Milana, from the 1965 Shashi Kapoor-starrer Jab Jab Phool Khile, to recall the romance of the massive display screen with Kashmir. Kashmir turned a spot of curiosity within the Nineteen Sixties and ’70s when songs from films like Junglee and Kashmir Ki Kaliconfirmed spectacular photographs from the State, which went on to turn into iconic. From these days, spending a honeymoon in Kashmir turned an aspiration for a lot of middle-class households throughout the nation.

Many shikarawallas have put in energy motors to satisfy the frenzy this yr. “If we don’t press motor boats into service, it is going to take the whole night time to ferry vacationers,” mentioned Nazir Gilkar, a shikarawalla. Gilkar plans to get his two daughters married in a single go as enterprise appears up. “Kashmir is an unsure place. I’ve set a goal for myself. If I obtain the goal, I’ll get them married,” Gilkar mentioned smiling.

A couple enjoys the fresh snowfall in Srinagar.

A pair enjoys the recent snowfall in Srinagar.
| Photograph Credit score: NISSAR AHMAD

As motorboats take over, the romance of pushing oars has turn into a fast-dying custom. On the again line of the lake, a houseboat inbuilt 1977, Shahnama, named after an extended epic poem by the Persian poet Firdowsi, waits for visitors. It has 4 deluxe rooms, intricately carved cornices and boundary planks. The Siyahs, who personal the boat, have been witness to one of the best and worst of occasions in Kashmir. Oldest within the houseboat commerce, the Siyahs have named most of their houseboats Alif Laila, Zam Zam, and Meena Bazaar.

Work of Persian girls providing wine and the image of ‘The Final Supper’ woven on a Kashmiri carpet adorn the partitions of the houseboat. The Siyahs have an elite clientele. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had tea on the terrace of the houseboat within the late Nineteen Seventies. “She spent the entire day by herself on the terrace of the houseboat. She would order cups of tea whereas sitting underneath the cover. We had no clue what she was busy with,” Ghulam Ahmad Siyah, in his late 70s, recalled. The patriarch has served vacationers from throughout the globe.

The visitor ebook from the Nineteen Seventies is testimony to the heyday of tourism in Kashmir. International vacationers penned their reward for Kashmir and the Siyahs for his or her hospitality on web page after web page. Unexpectedly, the entries cease in 1989. It was in late 1989 that militancy broke out in Kashmir and adjusted the course of the Valley’s future.

However the tide appears to be handing over favour of the tourism business. It’s for the primary time within the historical past of the houseboats that their rooms have been lit up throughout all of the months of this winter season. “Historically, houseboats are closed in Kashmir when winter units in round November. They’re re-opened for cleansing and upkeep in February or March. However this winter, round 65% of the houseboats couldn’t shut as a result of regular rush of vacationers,” Ibrahim Siyah, 53, proprietor of the Shahnama, mentioned. “Even the tariffs stand revised. From ₹3,000, they’ve elevated to ₹7,500. By no means in my life have I seen houseboats catering to vacationers in peak winter.”

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

A vacationer couple poses for {a photograph} in Badamwari in downtown Srinagar.
| Photograph Credit score: NISSAR AHMAD

Kashmir’s tourism chapter is witnessing many firsts this yr. “It’s higher than the pre-1989 interval,” veteran trekker and trekking guide Rauf Tramboo, who owns the Highland Journeys firm, mentioned. As a school-goer, Tramboo went to all of the places the place famous person Rajesh Khanna shot for movies, within the Nineteen Seventies. “Khanna was so impressed by my perseverance that he as soon as supplied me a particular spot to observe the taking pictures of the film Roti in Pahalgam,” Tramboo mentioned.

Information and considerations

Is the heyday of Kashmir tourism again? Round 3,000 individuals take Asia’s highest rope manner, Gondola, situated at a 13,000-feet altitude in north Kashmir’s Gulmarg, every day, official figures recommend. Greater than three lakh guests have clicked memorable photos on the seasonal Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Backyard, the best quantity because the backyard was opened in 2007 by then Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. “All of the data have been damaged this yr. In the course of the first two weeks after the tulip backyard was thrown open in March, 2.88 lakh individuals sauntered in regardless of the intense solar,” mentioned the backyard in-charge, Sofi Inam-ur-Rehman.

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

Vacationers take pleasure in a Gondola experience in Gulmarg, North Kashmir, in December 2021.
| Photograph Credit score: NISSAR AHMAD

From round 30 flights a day two years in the past, the Srinagar airport is buzzing until late night nowadays. “One other report was set on April 13 when greater than 16,000 passengers on 100 flights landed on the airport,” the Airport Director, Kuldeep Singh Rishi, mentioned. This has set the stage for a historic tourism season forward, that too within the backdrop of the Central authorities’s resolution to finish Jammu and Kashmir’s particular constitutional standing.

In an odd manner, the pandemic has come as a blessing for Kashmir’s tourism. “All of the high-end and higher middle-class home vacationers who would journey to Europe have been stranded as a result of journey ban. They began exploring Kashmir and have fallen in love with the place, which gives cheaper ski locations than Europe,” Tramboo mentioned.

The unprecedented rush reminds Tramboo of 1988. A report 89,000 international vacationers had visited Kashmir that yr between Might and September. “I believe there have been a couple of lakh international vacationers. We fell in need of guides. We employed guides from Nepal, Manali and Darjeeling. Thereafter, all the pieces got here to a standstill as a result of turmoil in 1989. We by no means noticed such a season once more. This yr gives a promise to return to the outdated days,” he mentioned.

Working in Nepal for 15 years with Garry Weare, a global title in trekking, Tramboo’s dream mission to upscale trekking in Kashmir mountain ranges had virtually come to an finish in 2019. “Simply earlier than Article 370 was diluted, I had invested round ₹40 lakh for trekking gear. Weare and I had explored new routes round Srinagar for trekkers. The clampdown that adopted August 5, 2019, shattered all our plans,” Tramboo mentioned. However he’s now optimistic about his mission.

However safety stays a difficulty for the tourism business. About 60 resorts are occupied by safety forces. In response to official figures, Kashmir Valley has 40,753 lodge rooms in round 1,500 resorts, which additionally embrace the rooms underneath occupation of the safety forces. There’s a demand to alter the nomenclature of those constructions from resorts to complexes to create correct information on rooms obtainable within the Valley. The enduring Kahkashan Lodge within the outdated metropolis, believed to have 200 rooms, nonetheless caters to Central Reserve Police Pressure personnel. Advisories issued by western international locations, together with the U.S. and the European Union, asking vacationers to restrict their visits to Srinagar after August 5, 2019 and designating the remainder of the Valley as “unsafe”, are nonetheless in place. “Except advisories change, we gained’t see international vacationers arriving within the Valley. They like trekking fairly than sightseeing. In truth, we have now recognized newer routes and locations for trekking, which join Srinagar with Tral and Pahalgam in south Kashmir,” Tramboo mentioned.

Properties to house stays

Accommodations have been booked until Might, particularly in Gulmarg and Pahalgam which keep cool even throughout peak summer season, hoteliers mentioned. Room tariffs are skyrocketing within the face of accelerating demand and the willingness of home vacationers to spend. Excessive-end lodge rooms value between ₹22,000 and ₹45,000 an evening this yr, the best ever within the historical past of the catering business of Kashmir. Even smaller resorts are charging 200% greater than what they usually provide within the lean interval. With rooms operating to full occupancy for the months of April and Might, a brand new development is shaping up. Little-known pockets of the outdated metropolis, in any other case recognized for road protests and clashes, have opened as much as vacationers.

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

Blooming mustard fields throughout the spring season on the outskirts of Srinagar.
| Photograph Credit score: NISSAR AHMAD

Khanyar, which witnessed the worst clashes and deaths of protesters within the Nineties, is one such instance. Roadside homes have been transformed to vacationer visitor homes on this space. Saima Dar is a resident of Khanyar. Her husband died in cross-firing in 1994. She blames the safety forces for opening indiscriminate fireplace in response to a grenade assault of militants on a picket. Dar thinks tourism can heal deep wounds. “Kashmir has seen sufficient turmoil. We by no means know when the battle will finish. Thirty years of expertise tells us that we have to dwell regardless of the battle. My household was devastated once I misplaced my husband. Now we have seen probably the most troublesome occasions. I’m certain catering to vacationers will assist us increase cash for a protected future,” Dar mentioned.

All of the drapes in her visitor home have hand-made crewel embroidery. European tea cosies cowl the normal bone China tea units for visitors. “We provide kahwa (a standard Kashmiri inexperienced tea ready with spices like saffron, inexperienced cardamom and cinnamon) to vacationers at our place,” she mentioned.

Srinagar was as soon as often known as the capital of militants due to the variety of youths becoming a member of the ranks, however areas in Srinagar akin to Khanyar, Nowpora, Bishambar Nagar and Baba Dembhare are quick turning into vacationer hotspots at present. Fancy eating places have prolonged night life in these areas, which used to shut by sunset due to the safety scenario.

Only a few metres away from Dar’s visitor home is the Martyrs’ Graveyard the place 33 civilians, who died in firing by safety forces, lay buried. “I’m certain the vacationers will see our scars too as soon as they transfer round within the metropolis,” Dar mentioned.

The Sayeed impact

Instantly after the Congress authorities deposed and jailed the then Prime Minister of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah in 1953, tourism picked up in 1954 underneath Congress-patronised Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad’s rule. Until date, no historian has solved the puzzle of how jailing a well-liked chief didn’t affect tourism in 1954 — lodge gardens have been full of individuals.

There may be consensus amongst Kashmir’s tourism gamers that it was Mufti Mohammad Sayeed who introduced the tourism sector again on observe after he took over after as Chief Minister following the 2002 elections. He had served as Union Tourism and Civil Aviation Minister within the Rajiv Gandhi authorities in 1986 and used his expertise 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.
| Photograph Credit score: Particular Association

“The thought of changing houses into visitor homes was floated by Mufti Sahib. He established tourism improvement authorities. He personally oversaw initiatives and demand standing experiences. We all of a sudden noticed locals coming ahead with proposals to transform their conventional houses into vacationer visitor homes; it was unprecedented in Kashmir earlier,” mentioned Naeem Akhtar, as soon as an in depth aide of Sayeed, who additionally served as Tourism Secretary and Tourism Minister in Jammu and Kashmir. The Valley has registered 600 homes as visitor homes to date. “This yr over 50 homeowners got here ahead to ask that their homes be categorised as visitor homes,” an official mentioned.

The Jammu and Kashmir authorities gives a subsidy of as much as 50% of the full value of the mission to accommodate homeowners for changing their personal houses into house stays, topic to a ceiling of ₹5 lakh in every case. Over 100 visitor homes are already operational in Srinagar, and scores of locals have began making use of this yr because the vacationer rush is seen on the streets. Even the land ceiling was relaxed by the Sayeed authorities to encourage increasingly more individuals “to show to tourism than weapons in Kashmir”.

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Sayeed relaxed norms to such an extent that resorts and visitor homes sprung up in every single place in Raj Bagh and Gogji Bagh in uptown Srinagar. He additionally laid the inspiration for permitting vacationers to go to the no-go space of downtown Srinagar. The experiment was profitable to some extent. However Akhtar warns that utilizing tourism as an indicator of normalcy can be the most important folly New Delhi would commit. “It’s a hard-earned area the place the individuals of Kashmir have invested collectively. The credit score goes to political events throughout the spectrum for making Kashmir tourism a conflict-neutral sector. Sayeed invested a whole lot of vitality and had a whole lot of conversations along with his opponents to make sure that tourism and training remained conflict-neutral sectors,” Akhtar mentioned.

In truth, until 2019, the Jammu and Kashmir authorities had a coverage of disallowing the sharing of any data on the variety of vacationers visiting Kashmir because it was involved that the numbers can be construed as a return to normalcy in Kashmir. The choice to maintain numbers shielded from the general public eye instilled confidence amongst stakeholders, and their commerce didn’t come underneath any risk. On the similar time, militants too saved their distance from the tourism sector. Any assault on vacationers invited condemnation from even Hurriyat leaders like Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. The coverage appears to be paying dividends 20 years after it was framed.

Again on the Shahnama houseboat, a shiny new customer’s ebook is on the desk to report historical past being created. “Home vacationers keep away from writing in guests’ books. I want they did for the report. We additionally hope international vacationers will return to pen their experiences within the ebook,” Iliyas Malik, the caretaker of the houseboat, mentioned. Hope floats in Kashmir.

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