Pandemic deals 'crushing blow' to struggling Kashmir tourism

A herder grazes his sheep in Gulmarg meadow, a renowned tourist resort 45km west of Srinagar, Kashmir, India, September 20, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Athar Parvaiz
A herder grazes his sheep in Gulmarg meadow, a renowned tourist resort 45km west of Srinagar, Kashmir, India, September 20, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Athar Parvaiz

The disputed region has received less than 600 visitors since mid-July, compared with 14,600 in the same period last year

SRINAGAR, India, September 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Kashmir went into a coronavirus lockdown in March, tourism in the Indian-administered territory had already been hobbled by eight months of tight security restrictions that New Delhi imposed after revoking the region's semi-autonomous status.

Now hoteliers, taxi drivers and others relying on tourism in the region say the pandemic has compounded the financial shock to the industry and they fear it could take years to recover.

The state of tourism in Kashmir is "a typical case of out of the frying pan into the fire," said Faiz Bakhshi, a prominent businessman and former secretary general of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCC&I).

"I don't see any resumption of tourism in Kashmir until there is zero incidence of COVID-19 cases (here)," said Bakhshi, who owns the Shangrila, a hotel in Srinagar, the region's main city.

Kashmir has reported about 70,000 cases of COVID-19 and at least 1,084 deaths, according to government figures.

Estimates by the KCC&I show that more than 600,000 jobs have been lost since India's decision to scrap the region's special status in August last year.

In that time, Kashmir's economy across all sectors has lost 400 billion Indian rupees (about $5.4 billion), KCC&I vice president Majeed Mir told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

While there are no reliable estimates of how many people have been made unemployed since March, Bakhshi said the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation.

In a policy brief published last month, the United Nations said the pandemic could cost the global tourism industry approximately $1 trillion and threaten more than 100 million jobs.

Kashmir has been disputed by India and Pakistan since the end of British colonial rule in 1947. Both countries claim it in full but rule it in part.

India followed its move last year with a security lockdown in Kashmir, imposing strict restrictions on the movement and assembly of people and shutting down phone and internet communications for several months.

The government said the restrictions were necessary to quell unrest in the region.

Communications in Kashmir have gradually been reinstated in recent months, but mobile internet is yet to be restored fully, with only slow-speed 2G access allowed in 18 of the region's 20 districts.

Ejaz Ayoub, an independent Srinagar-based economic analyst, said Kashmir's tourism business needs two basic factors in order to thrive: peace and sustainable demand.

"The August 5 decision jeopardised both. And, since March this year, the pandemic has dealt a crushing blow to tourism," Ayoub said.

EMPTY ROOMS

Zahoor Ahmad Trumboo said the occupancy of his Hotel Shah Abbas, overlooking the famed Dal Lake in Srinagar, has fallen by more than 90% since August last year.

Before then, all 80 rooms would be booked every summer and the hotel would do good business in the winters, too, he noted, as visitors came to enjoy the lake as well as the Himalayan region's scenic mountains and glaciers.

Now, the tourist industry "has no raw material," Trumboo said as he leaned back on a sofa at his hotel. "Tourists are the raw material for us. But, there have been no tourists in Kashmir for a year now."

Kashmir's tourism season officially started on July 15, noted the region's director for tourism Nissar Ahmad Wani.

"But, we have received only 525 tourists in the months since - an average of nine people per day," he said over the phone.

In August and September 2019, more than 14,600 tourists visited Kashmir - and that was a 90% drop from the same period in 2018, before Kashmir's semi-autonomous status was revoked, according to figures from the tourism department.

Along with horticulture and agriculture, tourism is an important industry for Kashmir, contributing about 7% of the region's gross domestic product, according to government data.

While worries about security have kept many visitors away, others are put off by travel restrictions that have been put in place in the region and in their own countries to slow the spread of the virus, say industry experts.

Tourists can only come into Kashmir by air, and they must adhere to COVID-19 testing at the airport and quarantine for 24 hours upon arrival, as well as keep to general social distancing and mandatory mask wearing, explained Wani.

MENTAL STRESS

At a tourist taxi stand in the Srinagar locality of Tang Bagh, a line of cars sits parked all day - most of the 200 taxi drivers who use the stand have left their cars there because there are no tourists to drive anywhere.

Two drivers, Nazir Ahmad and Fayaz Bhat, visit the office at the taxi stand a few days a week.

"We don't only come in search of work. We often chat for hours to share our problems and concerns – to alleviate our mental stress," said Bhat, who has three children, including a physically-impaired son.

Three years ago, Bhat took out a loan to buy his taxi, which he was paying off in instalments of 10,000 rupees ($136.00) each month before the pandemic struck.

He has not been able to make a single payment since March, he lamented.

"The last few months have been very tough. I had to take medicine for two months after I was diagnosed with depression," he said.

Earlier this month Jammu and Kashmir Lt. Governor Manoj Sinha announced an economic relief package of 13.5 billion rupees ($183 million) to help the region's business sector recover from the financial pain of the pandemic.

Mir at the KCC&I said that figure will not be enough.

"One can imagine how much is needed if the government is serious about helping the business sector, including tourism, the worst hit sector by COVID-19," he said.

"But, nonetheless, we appreciate that the government has started showing interest."

Hotel Shah Abbas owner Trumboo said he is convinced the only way Kashmir's tourism industry will restart is with a significant "financial injection".

Right now, he said, "Kashmir's tourism is not only damaged; it is dead."