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Kashmir's embattled travel industry enjoys a renaissance

Indians Flock To 'paradise On Earth' As COVID Ebbs And Security Improves

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Tourism typically accounts for 7% of Kashmir's economy.   © Reuters

SRINAGAR, India -- It has been a grueling three years for Riyaz Ahmad, whose brightly colored houseboat, decked out with ornate walnut-carved interiors, sits on the shimmering waters of Dal Lake. Choking up, he recalls how political turmoil and the pandemic kept tourists away these past three years, pushing him to the brink of starvation.

"I just don't want to go through that experience of helplessness and penury ever again," he says. "To feed my family, at times, I was forced to do odd jobs at just 500 rupees ($6.50) per day."

But things have changed.

"This year is a new dawn for us," he says, breaking into a broad smile. "Not a single day goes by without a booking. We're earning 3,000 to 4,000 rupees per day and it's the best we could have wished for."

Ahmad and hundreds of other owners of houseboats and shikaras, small multipurpose wooden boats, are enjoying not just a revival but a full-blown tourist boom as people flock to a region known as paradise on earth for its natural beauty. Since the start of the year, the Kashmir Valley has welcomed nearly one million tourists, overwhelmingly from India. It is the highest number in more than a decade, officials say.

Tourism accounts for 7% of gross domestic product in the region. More than a third of Jammu and Kashmir's population of 12 million is directly or indirectly associated with the industry.

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Tourists wait to visit the famous terraced gardens of Nishat in Srinagar on May 28. (Photo by Naveed Ahmad)

Yet the industry exists in the shadow of political instability and sometimes violence. In 2019, the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked the special status given to Jammu and Kashmir by the Indian constitution, imposing travel restrictions and internet curbs for nearly six months. Then came COVID and the travel bans of 2020 and 2021, which left the industry struggling to survive.

The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries estimated that two-and-a-half years of disruption sucked 500 billion rupees ($6.5 billion) out of the economy.

Zino Rost, a 28-year-old from the Netherlands, was one of those making a trip to Kashmir this year after an earlier visit was cut short by the political restrictions in 2019. "Everything is fascinating about this place," he told Nikkei Asia. "Its mesmerizing beauty and friendly people keep calling me back."

A cease-fire between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory has helped revive fortunes. New tourist facilities have opened at Gurez and Bungus, close to the Line of Control that separates the two militaries, offering camping, trekking and kayaking on the Kishanganga River. Meanwhile, as the pandemic wanes, Indians are looking to travel closer to home.

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Althea, an executive based in the west Indian state of Goa, typically vacations outside the country with her parents, but this year they dropped into Srinagar.

"In the post-COVID era, priorities have changed," she said. "Safety comes at the top, and in times when certain countries are still reporting cases and mandating travel prerequisites, this place is the best to choose.''

Currently, COVID numbers in Kashmir are among the lowest in India, with just 45 active cases this week.

Such has been the surge in demand, operators are now worried about being able to keep up. "We continue to receive a huge number of bookings and queries every day, but many among them are turned down, due to the paucity of hotel rooms and other kinds of stays,'' said Muhammad Suhail, who runs travel agency Kashmir Travel Advisor.

With a hotel capacity of fewer than 70,000 rooms -- and few high-end units -- prices in many cases have doubled. Some residents are making their homes available through local travel agents or online to cash in on the boom.

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Locals at Dal Lake in Srinagar have seen their boats filling with tourists again.   © Reuters

There are complaints, however, that the lion's share is going to big online travel companies, who are able to commandeer large blocks of accommodation, rather than small local businesses. "It's leaving locals in the lurch,'' said Farooq Kuthu, spokesperson for the United Tourism Bodies' Forum in Kashmir.

Yasin Tuman, a houseboat owner in his early 40s whose boat on the pristine waters of Nigeen Lake in Srinagar is almost twice as old as him, says he has hosted several foreign diplomats among a flood of customers this year. But he is yet to be convinced of a sustained revival of tourism.

"We have experienced many highs and lows," he told Nikkei Asia. "The key to revival lies in the stability and progress of the tourism figures every year. Staring at the fragility of the situation in our region, we can just hope that it keeps on this pace for years to come."