Spring has arrived. So have freshness, serenity and colours. And Kashmir is donned like a bride. Tulips are blooming in world famous Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip garden (the largest tulip garden in Asia spread over an area of about 30 hectares on the foothills of Zabarwan Range with an overview of Dal Lake), a serene ambience of beauty is in display in Badam vaer (almond garden located in the foothills of Koh-e-Maran in the old city), Mughal gardens in the outskirts of Srinagar are presenting an enchanting and enthralling view, Dal Lake is dazzling in the evening horizon with shkiras roving over its sublime waters. Gulmarg and Pahalgam are calling visitors with love to enjoy its verdant valleys and unparallel beauty. The snowy mountains, lush green grasses and thick forests have mesmerizing enchantment. Wular Lake is a bewitching beauty far in the corner and away from media glare.
Thus Kashmir of spring is a picture perfect. It sets rolling the tourist season for the year. It is also a perfect reflection of the imagination of the Persian poet Amir Khusru who referred to Kashmir as a paradise on earth. There is an old stone plaque in Shalimar Gardens, which proclaims “Agar firdous baroye zameen ast, hami asto, hami asto hami ast”, meaning “If there is a paradise upon earth, it is here, it is here, it is here”.
But despite all this beauty in display, Kashmir is failing to attract the visitors (domestic or international), travellers and the lovers owing to the prevailing violent situation from past couple of years which keeps tourists away.
Nevertheless, the few tourists who manage to come to Valley from Indian plains or from western countries (inspite of the negative perception) are all enthused with both bewitching beauty of the place and warm hospitality of its people. “I will go back to my city (Indore) and tell everyone about Kashmir being absolutely safe to visit. All the myths of unsafe Kashmir for tourists need to be dispelled,” said a tourist at Nishat Garden.
Kashmir is witnessing bad tourism since 2016 when months of street protests were witnessed after the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani – which gained a bad media publicity for Kashmir and created a perception outside that ‘the paradise on earth’ is no longer safe for visitors to come.
According to official figures, Kashmir received 11 lakh tourists in 2017, which means 2.5 lakh less arrivals in 2018 despite a number of promotional events by the tourism department with India as well as in some foreign countries as well. In 2012, 13.08 lakh tourists including both domestic and foreign visited Kashmir. If 2012 is kept as the base year, a decline of over 4.5 lakh tourists meaning a 35% dip in tourist arrivals is reported in 6 years.
Ironically, as per the official figures, since 2012 there has been constant dip in tourist arrivals to the Valley.
In 2013, the number of tourists including both domestic/foreign who visited Kashmir was 11.71 lakh. In 2014, the year Kashmir witnessed devastated floods causing over Rs 1 lakh crore losses, that year the number of tourists was 11.67 lakh.
In 2015, the number was 9.27 lakh, while in 2016 the number of tourists was 12.12 lakh which is higher than 2018, despite the fact that Valley remained closed for over four months after killing of Hizb commander, Burhan Wani and subsequent civilian killings.
This sordid tale revealed by the official figures of tourists arrivals is a worrying reality. The situation has shown no signs of improvement in 2019 (till now) too.
For tourism traders as well as for the economy of the state, sluggish tourism is undoubtedly not a good omen. Livelihood of thousands of families associated with tourism trade gets affected when footfall is low. State government, especially the tourism department, has to own the responsibility for ‘negative impact’ on tourism sector in Kashmir.
While as the tourism players put onus on the negative perception created by the certain media outlets outside the state, and a recent parliamentary panel report has blamed the GST implementation for ‘almost negligible’ tourist arrivals in Kashmir; flawed promotional and motivational campaigns by the tourism department has to be blamed, without any bias.
Every year hundreds of crores of rupees are being spent by the state tourism department for promotional and motivational campaign in all major and prospective cities of the country and abroad, besides running a protracted media advertisement campaign in all major dailies and news channels both inside and outside the state. All these ventures render no results for uplifting tourism, but surely helps the officers of the tourism department to fatten their pockets and ensuring free foreign and domestic sojourns for them. The desired goal of ending the negative perception for tourism in Kashmir is hardly realised.
“What is tourism department doing for the promotion of tourism? Nothing other than wasting the public money in the name of promotional campaigns! If the department’s campaign was anyway successful, the results would have been for all us to see,” said Rouf Ahmad, who runs a motor-boat in Dal Lake for commercial purpose. “We (people associated with tourism trade) are not in a position to feed our families properly owing to the low earning in wake of almost-no arrival of tourists,’ he added.
Now in absence of any serious and effective promotional efforts by the tourism department in enhancing tourist influx to valley, industry and tourism players have taken the onus on themselves to work for ending negative perception about Kashmir tourism.
The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) and the The Kashmir Tourism Players have decided to will make all out efforts to ‘defeat the motivated propaganda by vested interests, intended to target economy of Kashmir and to prevent people from interacting with Kashmiri people’.
KCCI, in a statement issued last week, said that it was unfortunate how social media, some selected TV Channels and print media were being used to spread false and misleading news. The statement added that the divisive elements are attempting to influence the secular and unbiased opinion of a majority of people by exhorting them not to visit Kashmir.
“In this hour, it is the responsibility of all public thinkers, intellectuals and members of the civil society to expose elements behind these sinister campaigns. Time has come to ask uncomfortable questions and seek answers from those busy in distortion of facts,” KCCI said.
The statement added, “the Kashmir Tourism players urged all secular and right thinking individuals, interested in knowing the truth to see how negative image of our place and people is projected. All this for what? Only for elections. The politics of hatred and communalism has found no takers as the recent domestic election results for four states indicate and the escalation of conflict has been discouraged by all global powers. Patriotism seems to be the last refuge for some elements and needs to be seen in the light that it deserves.”
Saying that this is a message of peace, brotherhood, love and understanding from a place where people are undergoing very tough and harsh conditions KCCI urged the State Government to take all measures required for bringing the Tourism and other sectors of our economy back on track.
The statement also gave pointers as to why people should come to Kashmir.
1. If you want to escape unrelenting warmongering by sections of the media.
2. If you are tired of unashamed ridiculous news anchors.
3. To know difference between Truth and Hype.
4. To know How propagation of Hate Politics has alienated people.
5. To know how good our people are, in particular youth, who have been pushed to the wall.
6. To know how secular our people are, who opened their doors for the visitors, stranded or otherwise, in moment of crisis.
7. To know how appreciative we are of the help extended and doors opened to our people, especially students, when under attack from goons and hooligans in various States.
8. To know that like all human beings, what we strive for is respect, honour and a life of dignity.”
However a senior tourism official who wished anonymity said, “Only negative perception cannot be blamed for this decline. Situation in Kashmir has turned ugly in last few years due to strife which is affecting the tourist influx. Though it is a known fact that no harm has been done to any tourists but still people fear.”