Violent unrest threatens Kashmir's tourist industry9:07 PM, July 4, 2017
India(Jammu and Kashmir):The state's economy has taken a big hit, locals dependent on tourism hope for peace.
Boatmen in Kashmir wait and wait for work on Dal Lake. The once-thriving tourist industry has taken a big hit since the escalation of militancy in the region. (Photo by Umer Asif)
Since the arrival of spring in the picturesque Kashmir valley, 67-year-old Ali Mohammad Dar has spent every morning on his wooden boat waiting to take a tourist out on the Dal Lake. Every day, he has returned home empty handed.
For years, the lake in the heart of India's Jammu and Kashmir state capital of Srinagar, has been a central attraction for thousands of tourists who visit the city in the foothills of the Himalayas to explore its majestic mountains, emerald streams and mesmerizing lakes.
Dal Lake has provided for the livelihoods of generations of families, Dar told ucanews.com, explaining that their only income was what tourists would pay them. "We have grown up here and, for years, have seen tourists arrive in their droves to explore the beauties of Kashmir," Dar said.
But things have taken an ugly turn over the last two years. The seasonal tourist inflows came to an abrupt stop after June 8 when government forces shot dead Burhan Wani, a militant leader who promoted an armed struggle to free the region from Indian rule.
The killing sparked violent protests resulting in the deaths of 15 civilians the very next day. More than 90 people were killed and it is estimated around 15,000 people were injured during the five-month-long anti-India protests.
The state government's tourism director Mehmood Shah said the situation this year is worse. "We received 1.12 million tourists in Kashmir in the 12 months to July 2016. This year, up to mid-June we have not even received 50 percent of last year's figures," Shah said.
The autumn season of July, August, September and October last year remained tense and deterred tourists from visiting. Shah said the government was making efforts to hold road shows in other Indian states to attract tourists. "But things aren't changing as we'd hope them to change," Shah added.
On the snow-covered mountains of north Kashmir's Gulmarg, local worker Abdul Hameed Sheikh expressed his pessimism about this year's tourist season.
A sledge puller for past 18 years, Sheikh takes tourists to on a tour of the wintry hills of Gulmarg for a sum of 100 rupees (US$1.5) per ride. "There was a time when I used to provide more than 20 rides a day. Now if I get five rides a day, it is a miracle," Sheikh told ucanews.com.
The killing of militant Sabzar Bhat on May 27 has exacerbated tensions. Bhat, considered Wani's trusted lieutenant, was popular among the separatists. Many fear his death will spill more blood.
Bhat was killed in an encounter with government forces who were deployed to crush the militancy. The separatists are fighting for the region to join Muslim-majority Pakistan or to function independent of India. Bhat's death triggered more protests, a curfew and restrictions on travel and use of the internet.
Such incidents scare away tourists, boat-owner Dar said. "They go to Himachal Pradesh and other hill destinations. Why would anyone endanger the lives of their family by visiting a place that is marred by violence and bloodshed?" Dar asked.
While Kashmir's tourist income is dwindling, the profits have grown for other states, such as Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The secretary general of the Travel Agents Association of Kashmir, Farooq Ahmed Kuthoo, told ucanews.com that almost all the bookings for Kashmir this year have been cancelled.
"We do not have even 10 percent of the bookings at present. This has happened for the first time since the eruption of militancy in Kashmir in 1990. There is also a serious dip in the number of enquiries to visit Kashmir," said Kuthoo.
According to figures from the government's tourism department, some 403,000 tourists visited the valley during the first four months of 2016, but only 181,000 tourists arrived during the same period this year — a drop of 56 percent.
Some 20 percent of the state's 12.5 million people directly or indirectly depend on tourism for their livelihoods. Christians are an invisible minority, numbering just 35,000 in the state's mostly Muslim population. Roughly half of the Christian population is Catholic, mostly socially and economically poor engaged in manual work.
Data compiled by the Indian Journal of Economics and Development in 2016 show that 425,000 people are directly dependent on tourism for their income. They include management and employees of hotels, houseboats, guest houses, restaurant dormitories and tent houses.
A further 2.1 million Kashmiri people indirectly depend on tourism, such as taxi drivers, shopkeepers, vendors and fruit sellers.
The state government records also show that it has some 1 million artisans working in handicrafts sector, whose products are sold to the tourists, mainly as souvenirs.
Tourism accounts for 7 percent of the state's income and is considered an important sector of Kashmir's economy. The state government, as per official records, has spent over US$ 1 million on promotional campaigns and advertising in the Indian and international media.
Despite this, Dar still waits in his boat every day, praying for peace so that for the next season the tourists will return.
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