by Kulsoom Nizamuddin
- Indian-administered Kashmir -
Mohammad Rafeeq, 55, is a shikarawalla who starts his day at 7am, waiting on the banks of Dal Lake with his wooden boat, hoping to find tourists to take for a ride. Today, he’ll be lucky to find a few. According to Rafeeq, before 1989, he could hardly find time to rest, so packed with tourists was his shikara. He never imagined that violence would cause his happiness to be so short lived. Rafeeq says, “Out of 1500 Rs per day (US$35), I was able to provide my family with at least food and clothes, though I couldn’t afford to educate my children. These days it’s even difficult to manage and whatever little I earn it is spent on medicine for my sick wife. I ferry only two or three tourist families per day - if it continues like this, my family will die of starvation.” Now, his income is 200 rupees a day or less.
- In a continuing cycle of conflict, fresh violence broke out this week in Kashmir, heightening tensions and confining everyone to their homes as a blanket curfew was put into effect in Srinagar. - Ed.
Rafeeq is not the only one whose business has been hit badly due to tourism decline. Once a hot destination for tourists, Kashmir’s tourism industry has suffered a major set back since the outset of violence and armed struggle against Indian occupation in 1989.
Tourism is a source of livelihood to thousands of people in Kashmir - from hoteliers and house boat owners to the shikarawallas and craftsmen. Mr. G.M Bhat, Head of the Economics Department at Kashmir University says, “tourism is one of the major activities for stimulating the state’s economy. About 45% of the state’s population is directly or indirectly connected with this activity, subscribing about 25% of the state’s domestic gross product. An estimated Rs 6,515 crores (US$1,543,108) is annually generated from tourism. Tourism develops international relations, earns a lot of foreign exchange and contributes substantially to the gross domestic product,” he adds.
Kashmir is endowed with spectacular scenery. Its gushing rivers, lush green forests and mountains offer tourists many adventures to choose from - trekking, trans-Himalyan jeep safari, mountaineering, fishing and whitewater rafting. Winter sports have also become a popular attraction for tourists here in the past few years.
Kashmir is also a favorite destination for Indian filmmakers. A local filmmaker says the major blockbuster, Junglee, featuring Indian stars Shammi Kapoor and Saira Bano on the snow capped slopes of Kashmir, took Bollywood by storm. "For Bollywood, it was like discovering treasure in the backyard. Bollywood was a boost to our tourism - I wish filmmakers would return since the situation is getting better now. Kashmir has a lot more to offer them in terms of locales and ambience,” he adds.The tourism industry is heavily dependent on Kashmir’s forests, which are known locally as “green gold.” During the years of conflict, however, jungle and forest smugglers have done immense damage. Deforestation is rampant in the absence of proper accountability. Naked hillsides reflect the havoc wrought on nature’s bounty. “In [light] of how crucial our forests are as a tourist attraction, the government has to deal with jungle smugglers and formulate a policy to [protect] the green gold and save this sick industry,” suggests environmental journalist, Arif Shafi.
Polluted water also poses a threat to tourism. The world famous Dal Lake is losing its charm as it has almost turned into a cesspool from unchecked pollution; even worse, it has shrunk alarmingly from 25 square kilometers to just 11 over the years. So immense was the damage to Dal Lake and other Kashmiri bodies of water that foreign environmental experts were called in to advise the government on safety measures. Shafi says, “Initially, some hope was generated by such initiatives. [But} these exercises continue over the years with no concrete solutions.” He lays the blame, saying, “the state administration lacks commitment and the people lack civic sense.”
Despite Kashmir’s many attractions, the ongoing conflict carries a high price. In 1995, the 700-year-old shrine of the great Sufi saint, Shiekh Nooruddin Noorani was gutted with fire. The shrine, a symbol of cultural integrity famous for its grandeur and unique architecture, was flocked to by thousands of pilgrim tourists every year, both Hindu and Muslim. The shrine was set on fire and completely destroyed in a gun battle between security forces and the infamous militant Mast gul, who took shelter inside the shrine with his associates.
Though tourism has recovered somewhat in the last decade, with every new onset of violence, the numbers drop again. “There has been a drastic decline in tourist inflow to the Kashmir Valley as people prefer safe places to enjoy and relax. Every time something happens like blasts or any sort of violence, there is a massive cancellation of bookings,” says Mr. Owais, a travel agent.
Owais blames the media’s undue coverage of violent incidents by some television channels for creating a mess. “These things create fear among people outside Kashmir. We shouldn’t exaggerate things like this. It’s the responsibility of every Kashmiri to contribute for the good,” he says.Mr. Suhail, a TV journalist, rejects the idea that the media is exaggerating the violence: “It’s not fair to blame the media for tourist decline. The media has to play its own role and can’t afford to paint a negative picture as positive. If, for example, seven people die in a blast, we can’t report that none died to paint the situation as normal… State government may want the media to downplay the incidents to attract tourists, but media has to be objective. The role of media has been remarkable in creating awareness about Kashmir - we are contributors to peace,” he claims.
The Kashmiri government seems busy with damage control after tourists were killed in various attacks. Tourism Secretary Nayeem Ahmad says that there is a decline in tourism, but that doesn’t mean tourists have stopped coming entirely. “Attacks on tourists are very unfortunate and a huge loss to the industry. [But] we don’t have to succumb - the people who are behind these attacks must be looking for this… We have revived security arrangements and we hope a great number of tourists [will visit the] valley.”
Many people like Mr. Owais who are directly involved in the tourism industry are trying hard to revive it. The state government is also putting its best foot forward as well. Recently, the state’s tourism department arranged for many exhibitions in other countries to raise awareness about Kashmir as a tourist destination. It also expects a huge number of adventurous tourists for the rafting championship that the department has organized in the lush green valley of Sonamarg, a famous tourist spot in Kashmir. Also, in collaboration with the government of India, the state government has formulated an ambitious program to put many untapped areas rich with tourism potential on the tourism map. As many as fifty villages are being developed as model tourist destinations. Out of those fifty, five villages have been sanctioned for implementation.
“Our efforts point to our seriousness in reviving Kashmir’s tourism. It is just a beginning - a lot more needs to be done as it is matter of livelihood for thousands of people,” says Kashmir’s Director of Tourism, Farooq Shah. “Many tourists mean brisk business and we hope for a great tourist season ahead,” he adds.
About the Author
Kulsoom Nizamuddin is a journalist in Indian-administered Kashmir, where she has written for the leading national Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar and the local English daily The Greater Kashmir. Kulsoom received her Masters in Mass Communication and Journalism at the University of Kashmir in 2003. She received the Dainik Bhaskar appreciation award for "best reporting from a conflict zone" in 2003.
Kulsoom dreams of seeing every child attend school and believes that education is the best tool to fight poverty and many other social ills.