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A tourist’s death threatens to kill Kashmir’s revenue lifeline

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The tourism industry fears cancellations after the death of the visitor from Chennai. The industry cannot hope for revival until the conflict is resolved,  experts say.

Srinagar: The death of a tourist in Kashmir, days after the attack on a school bus which left a child seriously injured, has dented the impression that tourists and children are safe in the trouble-torn region.

The attack on the tourist, locals fear, could propel Kashmir’s tourism industry, its revenue lifeline, into an existential crisis.

R. Thirumani, 22, was on his way to Gulmarg, the popular ski resort, with his parents Monday when a volley of stones reportedly descended on the tourist bus they were in amid clashes in Narbal. One of the stones hit Thirumani on the head and he died in hospital.

The Valley, eulogised for centuries for its startling natural beauty, has been in turmoil for decades on account of the separatist movement. Even so, the local culture has always placed tourists on a pedestal, and visitors to the Valley return with heart-warming stories about Kashmiri hospitality. Even the separatists themselves have issued directions that tourists be left alone.

However, locals involved in tourism fear that Monday’s incident will serve as the final blow for an already struggling industry, which has seen its fortunes rise and fall with the tides of conflict. It’s being seen as a huge setback for the state government’s efforts to bring normalcy in the Valley on the back of a tourism boom.

Kashmir tourism
Graphic by Siddhant Gupta; Source: Economic Survey of Jammu & Kashmir, 2017

Tourism in doldrums

Between 2012 and October 2017, the number of tourist arrivals fell by 25 per cent. Compared to 2015, hotel occupancy was 20-30 per cent lower in 2017.

The tourist season, which begins with spring in March, had got off to a promising start this year. Footfall at Gulmarg registered an increase, and an estimated 1.2 lakh people have visited Srinagar’s Tulip Gardens since it reopened on 25 March.

However, expectations of tourist arrivals picking up further now stand defeated.

“This (Monday’s incident) was the last nail in the coffin of Kashmir tourism,” Asif Siddique, an executive committee member of the Travel Agents Association of Kashmir, told ThePrint.

He said the revival of the tourism industry in earnest was out of the question until the conflict was resolved.

A news report quoted the director of Kashmir tourism, Mehmood Shah, as saying that the episode was bound to have an adverse impact on the industry. “Absolutely,” he said when asked if Thirumani’s death would hurt tourism. “Cancellations may happen,” he added.

A similar trend was observed in 2016. At the start of the year, the Kashmir tourism department was set for a healthy season after a brief lull brought by the devastating floods of 2015. However, the protests that erupted in the wake of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani’s death in an encounter in July scared tourists away.

In July 2017, another group the militants have steered clear of, Amarnath pilgrims, came under attack in Anantnag and eight civilians were killed. There have also been reports of other attacks on tourists, but police have refuted them.

‘When will enough be enough?’

Narbal, where Thirumani’s bus came under attack, falls in Budgam district, which is represented in the assembly by former chief minister Omar Abdullah.

Reacting to the tourist’s death, Abdullah said he was deeply sorry this had happened in his constituency. “This young man from Chennai died in my constituency and while I don’t support these goons, their methods or their ideology I am deeply, deeply sorry that this happened at all and that too in an area I have been proud to represent since 2014 (sic),” he tweeted.

He also blamed the PDP-BJP-led state government for “ignoring” the gravity of the situation in the state. “The J&K government has failed, the CM has failed. How much blood will have to be shed in Kashmir before the Hon PM realises the gravity of the situation in J&K? When will enough finally be enough?” he said.

Since 1 April, more than 30 people, including militants, civilians and security personnel, have been killed in encounters and clashes across south and central Kashmir.

The administration steps in

Chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, at the receiving end of heavy criticism for “failing” to get the state out of its current crisis, said after Thirumani’s death that the episode had left the administration with heads hung in shame.

Soon after his death at Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, Mehbooba rushed to meet the victim’s parents. “She met the victim’s family… and extended full support to the victim family,” said a spokesperson of her party, the PDP.

She subsequently issued directions to step up security for tourists. “Security has been stepped up and all forces are on high alert but more detailed steps will come soon…Police is working overtime to ensure the safety of tourists,” a source from Mehbooba’s team told ThePrint.

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