Srinagar: Nearly a month ago, the Jammu and Kashmir administration lifted its security advisory issued on 2 August asking tourists and Amarnath Yatra pilgrims to stay away from the erstwhile state. Tourists, however, did not return. In the month of October, Kashmir saw a 84 per cent dip in tourist footfall, ThePrint has learnt.
The advisory issued ahead of the Narendra Modi government’s move to scrap Article 370 on 5 August — which withdrew the special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir by the Constitution — and bifurcate the state into two union territories crippled the entire tourism sector in J&K.
While the state administration lifted the advisory on 9 October, the tourism department data accessed by ThePrint shows the industry in Kashmir is far from recovering from the blow it suffered in the aftermath of the Modi government’s Article 370 move and the subsequent communications clampdown, with the terror attacks over the last few weeks only adding to the sector’s woes.
Only 7,378 tourists visited the Valley after the advisory was lifted, bringing the total number of tourists in the month of October to 9,378. This is a fall of 84% from 59,048 tourists recorded in the same month last year, shows data.
In 2017, as many as 1,33,220 tourists had visited the Valley in October — the highest in eight years.
Between 5 August and 9 October, Kashmir saw a total of 8,404 tourists — a 95% fall from 1,85,057 tourists in the same period last year. Out of the 8,404 tourists, 7,031 were domestic and 1,373 were foreigners.
In 2018, the total number of tourists who visited the Valley between 1 August and 31 October was 2,28,905. This year, the figure stood at 24,019 — a large share of this arriving in the first four days of August.
Tourism accounts for roughly 6 per cent of Jammu and Kashmir’s GDP. The state was bifurcated into two union territories — Jammu-Kashmir and Ladakh — on 31 October.
‘Brand Kashmir’ amid terror attacks
While the numbers tell the crippling state of Jammu and Kashmir’s mainstay tourism sector, senior government officials maintain the visit by over 8,000 tourists despite a security advisory shows how powerful “brand Kashmir” is.
Speaking to ThePrint, J&K’s tourism department officials said they are hoping for better activity in the month of December, which marks the start of winter tourism.
However, the killing of 12 non-local civilians in unprecedented militant attacks across the Valley since 14 October is casting a shadow of uncertainty over Kashmir’s struggling tourism industry.
On Monday, a grenade attack in Srinagar — the third in the city since 14 October — killed one non-local and injured 35 others.
Coupled with prevalent tension in the region, the attack has amplified the concerns for the state government. The continuing ban on internet communication in the Valley also presents a huge challenge.
With businesses already suffering massive losses for three months, hopes for a recovery dashed with the killings of five non-local labourers in Kulgam last week. The labourers were from West Bengal, from where tourists flock to the Kashmir Valley in the months of October and November.
“Generally, Kashmir receives a large number of tourists from West Bengal in October and November owing to the Durga Puja holidays. The killing of five labourers from the state has sent a bad message across India,” said a senior official who didn’t wish to be named.
“Furthermore, 131 labourers were taken out of Kashmir and sent back home. Though tourists have not been targeted, killing of a fellow state residents can deter one from visiting Kashmir. We hope that doesn’t happen, though,” said the official.
‘Safest place on earth’
Amid the security threat in Jammu and Kashmir, a second senior state government official said travel agents from north Indian states made a surprising demand in a meeting with the tourism department last month — an advertisement with the tagline, ‘Kashmir the safest place on earth’.
“The travel agents wanted the department to issue an advertisement on Kashmir tourism with a tagline. The tagline they wanted was ‘Kashmir, the safest place on earth’. Now we are not saying Kashmir is a war zone, neither are we saying there is absolutely no threat to life and property. But a tagline like that wouldn’t have been appropriate,” said the second official.
Other officials said the security of tourists is likely to become a major concern in the future with police anticipating more militant attacks.
“Tourists coming to Kashmir despite the situation here is a good sign. 1,600 even visited the Gondola cable car (in Gulmarg) during the last three months. But it is also a truth that most of those who visited the state had pre booked their tickets and didn’t want to waste money on cancellation,” said a third state administration official.
“There are others who believe the media showing a crisis situation in Kashmir are biased and decide to travel nevertheless. We are yet to see how tourists see the recent spate of violence here. Till now October has been bad for business,” added the third official.
What tourists say
Kuber Sharma, a tourist from Maharashtra’s Thane who was visiting the Valley along with children, told ThePrint that he had booked his tickets three months ago, and didn’t pay heed to what he termed “rumours”.
“I used to hear rumours. Even today I heard there has been a grenade blast but I don’t know what to believe. Especially with no internet, I can’t even verify. But I believe that if fate has bad things stored they can happen to you in Thane or in Kashmir,” Sharma said.
His friend and travel mate Rajat agreed. However, both of them said the shutdown in the Valley has limited their shopping and dining plans.
Others, like Nagpur’s Vijay Muley, were puzzled to see the happenings in Kashmir.
“This is my sixth visit. I come with my family. I don’t completely understand what is happening here. On the surface it looks fine but then you see shops closed you know something is not right. I also know we can’t use police and military to force people to live normal lives,” Muley said.